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Documenting Dialogues: The Roots & Growth of Modern Islam – Part Two.   1 comment

Dualities of  ‘Jihad’ – ‘The Lesser’ & ‘The Greater’:

Jihad, like fatwa, was an Arabic term which entered the contemporary lexicon because of its use by modern Islamist movements, some of which were engaged in the ‘resistance struggle’ against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the decade-long war there, and others who, since earlier in that decade, were actively involved in terrorism, kidnapping and other violent activities. Its primary meaning is ‘exertion’ or ‘striving’, however, and its use in traditional Islamic discourse is very far from the military contexts with which it has become associated in the West, where its translation as ‘holy war’ has been particularly unhelpful. In reality, many forms of activity are included under the term in Islam, and in its most classical formulations the individual believer may undertake ‘jihad’ by his heart; his tongue; his hands; and by the sword – in that order of priority. It is also a collective obligation for Muslims – a duty known as fard kifaya, distinct from the purely personal obligations of prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage. It can be undertaken by the ruler on behalf of the whole community – and thus becomes, in the course of time, an instrument of policy.

The classical doctrine of jihad was formulated during the ‘Medina period’ and during the centuries of conquest, when the faith sustained an outward momentum unprecedented in human history. The doctrine, therefore, became an expression of Islamic triumphalism and an attempt, comparable to the concept of the ‘just war’ in Roman law, to limit the consequences of war. Adapting the customs of pre-Islamic Bedouin warfare, an element of chivalry was built into the code: women and children, the old and the sick, were to be spared from the sword. Polytheists were faced with the choice of conversion or death, but the ‘Peoples of the Book’ – Jews and Christians, later extended to Zoroastrians and Hindus – were to be protected in return for payment of taxes. They were allowed to practise their religion freely, and, since Islam defines religion in terms of ‘orthopraxis’ rather than ‘orthodoxy’, in practice religious minorities enjoyed a limited form of self-government. This was not religious tolerance in accordance with post-Enlightenment liberalism, but by the standards of medieval Europe, the doctrine of ‘jihad’ was a good deal more humane than the treatment of ‘heretics’ by the medieval Catholic church.

Nevertheless, the classical doctrine, interpreted politically, does imply that Islam will ultimately emerge victorious from its ‘struggle’. Following the logic of jihad, the world is divided into two mutually hostile camps: the sphere of Islam (dar-al-Islam) and the sphere of War (dar-al-Harb). Enemies will convert or be killed, like the polytheists, or submit, like the Christians and Jews. Those who die in ‘the path of God’ are instantly translated to paradise, without waiting for the resurrection or judgement day. The martyrs are buried where they fall, their bodies spared the ritual of cleansing in a mosque since they are pure already. In Islam, although there is a concept of ‘free-will’ for believers, God’s will is absolute, and man’s response is Islam or ‘submission’. The characteristic status of humans is, therefore, that of the ‘abd, the slave or servant of God. Primarily then, the concept of jihad is of an individual ‘striving’ in the way of God, and the collective ‘exertion’ of the umma of Islam. According to John Ferguson, writing in 1977:

It is the pursuit of the worship of the One God by whatever means; it is just here that the subjection of all ethical principles to the one great theological affirmation is vital for the understanding of the development of Islam.

In his book, War and Peace in the World’s Religions, Ferguson traces the development of the concept from the time of the Prophet and the submission of Mekka in 630 through to modern times. It was the chief instrument for the spreading of Islam and for the establishment of a world-state, but this did not necessarily infer that this would be achieved through war and conquest. There was to be a jihad of preaching and persuasion; one traditional saying has it that the monasticism of Islam is the jihad. Muslim expansion was halted at Tours in the west and at the frontiers of India in the east. The divinely appointed order came up against the intransigence of historical reality. Just as the first Christians were obliged to postpone, indefinitely, the second coming of Christ, so the global triumph of Islam had to be deferred. The umma was not established as a single theocratic state and most Muslims accepted that the jihad against the dar-al-Harb, the territory of war, had been suspended indefinitely, and ‘normalcy’ was achieved by the transition from militarism to civilization. Formerly Muslim territories such as Sicily and Spain reverted to unbelief. In due course, the concept of dar-al-Islam was modified. As the divine law was communal, rather than territorial, in its application, the scholars disputed amongst themselves about the number of Muslims required to make a territorial dar-al-Islam. Must Muslims have political control, or was it merely a matter of their right to proclaim the message of Islam and to perform their religious duties? As with so many questions of law, there were no conclusive answers. The jurists disagreed about whether a particular territory was dar-al-Islam or dar-al-Harb – or in a state of suspended warfare indicated by such intermediate categories such as dar-al-sulh (sphere of Truce).

The Prophet himself is quoted as saying, We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad. In other words, the conquest of Self is a greater struggle than the conquest of external enemies. So the Prophet made a distinction between the ‘lesser’ jihad of war against the polytheists and the ‘greater’ jihad against evil. At its broadest, the latter was the struggle in which the virtuous Muslim was engaged throughout his or her life. Despite the élan of the early conquests, historically it was the ‘greater’ jihad which sustained the expansion of Islam in many parts of the world over the centuries following that period. The dualism of good versus evil was maintained less by territorial concepts than by legal observance. Dar-al-Islam was where the law prevailed. In pre-colonial times, before the military might of the West erupted into Muslim consciousness, that law was commensurate with civilisation itself. The high-culture of Cairo and Baghdad extended via the trade routes to southern Africa, northern India and south-east Asia. This process of expansion was organic and self-directing. Since there was no church or overarching religious institution, there was no universal, centrally directed missionary effort. There was, however, the demonstration effect of Muslims living literate, orderly and sober lives.

Stereograph from 1908 with the title “Mingling of Orient and Occident — the Muski, Liveliest of the Real Streets of Cairo, Egypt”, from the Travelers in the Middle East Archive: http://scholarship.rice.edu/handle/1911/5570

Above: Cairo, 1908

From time to time attempts were made to establish the jihad as one of the pillars of Islam, and some adherents did so on the basis that since the Prophet spent most of his life in warfare, the faithful should follow his example, that an Islamic state should be permanently organised for war, and that heretics should be forcibly converted or put to the sword. They stood in a tradition which ascribed to Muhammad the words, My fate is under the shadow of my spear. These ‘jihadis’ were merciless in fighting, killing non-combatants and prisoners of war; their own lives were austere and self-disciplined. In general, however, the jihad did not become a sixth pillar of the Faith. This was because the five pillars; Shahada (affirmation), salat (prayer); zakat (almsgiving); saum (fasting) and the Hajj (pilgrimage) are all obligations on the individual believer, whereas the jihad is a collective obligation of Islam (fard al-kifaya) laid on the umma as a whole, not just on the individual within the global community. Indeed, it is explicitly stated in the Qur’an that not all individuals should actively participate in armed conflict (9, 123).

The Role of the State in ‘Jihad’:

Jihad is also seen as the chief responsibility of the state; an individual believer cannot wage his own ‘violent’ jihad independent of the state. But participation in the communal duty leading to death in ‘Allah’s path’ is a sure guarantee of immediate transit to paradise and exemption from the trial on the Day of Judgement. The jurists laid down certain rules of war in addition to the general agreement that non-combatants should be spared unless they were indirectly helping the enemy cause. Some jurists held that all which the participants in the jihad could not control should be destroyed; others that inanimate objects and crops should be destroyed but animals should be spared; others that everything should go except flocks and beehives. Destruction and poisoning of water supply were permitted. Spoils belonged to the participants only, but with one-fifth going to the state.

Map of the Ottoman Empire.

On 11 November 1914, the Ottoman Sultan and Caliph Mehmet V declared a jihad or holy war against Russia, France and Great Britain, announcing that it had become an obligation for all Muslims, whether young or old, on foot or mounted, to support the struggle with their goods and money. The proclamation, which took the form of a fatwa, was endorsed by religious leaders throughout the Sultan’s dominions. Outside the Empire, however, its effect was minimal. In Russian central Asia, French North Africa and British India the colonial authorities generally had no difficulty in finding ‘ulema to publicly endorse the Allied cause. Most galling for the Sultan-Caliph, his suzerain the Sharif Hussein of Mekka, Guardian of the Holy Places, refused to endorse the jihad publicly. He had already been approached by the British with a view to launching an Arab revolt against the Turks, the eventual success of which resulted in the Sharif’s sons Faisal and Abdullah being given the British-protected thrones of Iraq and Jordan.

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The Arabs of Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine and the Hedjaz preferred freedom to ‘Islamic’ rule, even though for many that freedom entailed the risk of new colonialist domination under the ‘infidel’. Just as a century later, pan-Islamic solidarity proved an illusion. The collapse of the Ottoman armies in 1917-18 drove home this point. The most recent example of jihad before the wars and conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan in the second half of the twentieth century was the Turkish action under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to remove Greek and Allied forces from Anatolia after the first world war (see the map below). Its status as such was confirmed when, on 19 September 1921, Ataturk was formally accorded the rank of Ghazi, given only to those who have participated in jihad. 

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The revitalised Turkish nation took the ultimate step of abolishing the caliphate in 1924, bringing the crisis of Islamic legitimacy to a head. Though the decision was endorsed by the Turkish National Assembly and generally approved by Arab nations newly freed from Ottoman dominion, the move was preceded by a mass agitation by the Muslims of India protesting against the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and the removal of the formal link between an existing Islamic state and the divine polity founded by the Prophet Muhammad. The Khalifat Movement dramatised the fundamental contradiction between pan-Islamic and nationalist aspirations. In India, it represented a turning point in the anti-colonialist movement, as Muslims who were formerly appeased by Britain’s ‘Eastern Policy’ favouring the Ottoman interest, joined Hindu nationalists in opposition to the Raj. The coalition proved short-lived, however, and the momentum generated by the Khalifat Movement eventually led to the separate political destiny for India’s Muslims in the form of Pakistan.

Purifying the ‘Inner State’ – Pacifism in Islam:

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In this context, we should also note that pacifism was not entirely unknown in Islam. One sect, the Maziyariyya, dropped fasting from the pillars of the Faith, and the concept of jihad altogether. This, however, was exceptional. More frequently expressed is the inclination to emphasise the spiritual aspect of the teaching of jihad. This is especially strong among the ‘Sufis’. Thus al-Qushayri (d. AD 1074) claimed that the basis of jihad is the tearing away of the Self from its habitual ways and directing it contrary to its desires. The jihad of ordinary believers, therefore, consists in the fulfilling actions and the jihad of ‘the elect’ lies in purifying the ‘inner state’. From the mid-twelfth century until modern times the Sufi brotherhoods flourished all over the Islamic world, from remote rural areas to the dense human fabric of the cities. It would be wrong to see the Sufis as necessarily ‘withdrawn’ from the world.

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Although some of the Sufi brotherhoods had indulged in ritual practices regarded with hostility by the ‘ulema, the majority insisted that the inner reality of Islam (Haqiqa) could only be approached through observance of the Shari’a, the outward or exoteric law. Under the umbrella of their different tariqas, the brotherhoods developed formidable organisations bound by personal ties of allegiance to their leaders (a tariqa, from the Arabic for ‘path’) is a school or order of Sufism, or specifically a concept for the mystical teaching and spiritual practices of such an order with the aim of seeking Haqiqa). The common spiritual disciplines of the orders, the gradations of spiritual authority linking the leader with his followers, the leader’s intercessionary powers with God and duty of obedience owed to him; all these made the tariqas important sources of social and political power, especially in peripheral areas of the Muslim world. In and through them, peaceful Sufi ideas came to dominate in those areas:

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But although the strife against evil, the ‘greater jihad’, might take a purely moralistic form, at times of increasingly traumatic historical crisis, the ‘lesser jihad’ came to the fore. The two jihads were interchangeable. The most active movements of resistance to European rule during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were led or inspired by renovators (mujjadis), most of them members of Sufi orders, who sought to emulate the Prophet’s example by purifying the religion of their day and waging war on corruption and infidelity. Such movements included the jihad preached among the Yusufzai Pathans on the Northwest Frontier of India by Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi in 1831. Once it became clear that Muslim arms were no match for the overwhelming technical and military superiority of the Europeans or the nominally Muslim governments backed by them, the movement for Islamic renewal took an intellectually radical turn.

The Ahmadiyya movement also stressed the spirit of jihad which enjoins on every Muslim to sacrifice his all for the protection of the weak and oppressed whether Muslims or not. They emphasised the need for active resistance and not just prayer and meditation. The test of jihad, therefore, lay in the willingness to suffer, not in the practice of warfare. They totally rejected the concept of a jihad directed to the expansion of Islam. They accepted that there may be a necessity for armed defence against aggression, but believed that the essence of jihad lay in active concern for the oppressed. One remarkable demonstration of Muslim pacifism took place among the Pathans of Northern India, a people with violent traditions. In 1930, Abdul Ghaffir Khan, the Gandhi of the frontier provinces, a puritan reformer, persuaded the Pathans of the power of non-violence. Persecutions, imprisonment and executions could not shake them from this path: they persisted for years in the courageous commitment to non-violence. While Ferguson concluded that Islam had been one of the most clearly militarist of all the world religions in its origins, essence, and development, the fact that it could produce Abdul Ghaffir Khan had shown that the ‘striving’ of Muslims, collectively and individually, could turn to peace.

Renovators – Reformists & Modernists:

Among the elites which had been most directly exposed to the European presence, the catastrophic failure of Islam was seen to lie as much in education and culture as in military defeat. A return to the pristine forms of would not be enough to guarantee the survival of Islam as a civilisation and way of life. The more sophisticated renovators may be divided broadly into reformists and modernists. Reformists usually came from the ranks of the ‘ulema’ and were more concerned with religious renewal from within. They adopted a modernist stance in emphasising personal responsibility in observance of the Shari’a. They also made full use of modern techniques of communication, including the printing press, the postal service and the expanding railway network. ‘Modernism’ became the doctrine of the political elites and intelligentsia. They recognised that in order to regain political power Muslims would have to adopt European military techniques, modernise their economies and administrations, and introduce modern forms of education. On the religious front, they argued for a new hermeneutic or reinterpretation of the faith in the light of modern conditions.

The modernists’ fascination with Europe and all its works often led them to adopt Western clothes and lifestyles which in due course separated them from the more traditionally minded classes. It was from modernist circles that veil-ripping feminists and the leaders of nationalist movements tended to be drawn. There were no clear lines dividing the two tendencies, which merged and divided according to circumstance. Leaders of both currents, such as Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98), founder of the Anglo-Oriental College of Aligarh in India, and reformers like Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1906), founder of the Salafiyya movement in Egypt, tended to be found in the cultural centres of the Muslim world that had been most exposed to Western imperialist influences. The problem for these imperialists was not that Islam was beyond reform, but that it had no institutional hierarchy comparable to that of the Christian churches through which theological and legal reforms could be put into effect. Reformist ‘ulema like ‘Abduh and his more conservative disciple Rashid Rida had no special authority, so that many of their peers remained traditionalists, as their ‘heirs’ have done up till the present day.

Although once a supporter of the Ottoman caliphate, Rashid Rida accepted its demise as symptomatic of Muslim decline; and while no advocate of secularism, he saw in the Turkish National Assembly’s decision a genuine expression of the Islamic principle of consultation (shura). The ideal caliph, according to Rida, was an independent interpreter of the Law (mujtahid) who would work in concert with the ‘ulema. In the absence of a suitable candidate, and of ‘ulema versed in the modern sciences, the best alternative was for an Islamic state ruled by an enlightened élite in consultation with the people, able to interpret the Shari’a and legislate when necessary. Many of Rida’s ideas were taken up by the most influential Sunni reform movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, an Egyptian schoolteacher. The Brotherhood’s original aims were moral as much as political: it sought to reform society by encouraging Islamic observance and opposing Western cultural influences, rather than by attempting to capture the state by direct political action. However, during the mounting crisis over Palestine during and after the Second World War the brotherhood became increasingly radicalised. In 1948, Egyptian Prime Minister Nuqrashi Pasha was assassinated and Hasan al-Banna paid with his life in a retaliatory killing by the security services the following year.

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The Brotherhood played a leading part in the disturbances that led to the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 but after the revolution, it came into conflict with the nationalist government of Gamal ‘Abdul Nasser. In 1954, after an attempt on Nasser’s life, the Brotherhood was again suppressed, its members imprisoned, exiled, or driven underground. It was during this period it became internationalised, with affiliated movements springing up in Jordan, Syria, Sudan, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia. In Saudi Arabia, under the vigorous leadership of (later King) Faisal ibn ‘Abdul ‘Aziz, the Brotherhood found refuge, and financial support, with funds for the Egyptian underground, and salaried posts for exiled intellectuals. A radical member of the Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), executed for an alleged plot to overthrow the Egyptian government, would prove to be the Sunni Muslim world’s most influential Islamist theorist. Some of his ideas (see below), however, are directly attributable to the Indian scholar and journalist, Abul ‘Ala Maududi, whose works became available in Arabic translation during the 1950s. One of Maududi’s doctrines was to have a major impact on Islamic political movements. This was the idea that the struggle for Islam was not for the restoration of an ideal past, but for a principle vital to the here and now; the vice-regency of man under God’s sovereignty.

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The jihad was therefore not just a defensive war for the protection of the Islamic territory or dar-al-Islam. It might be waged against governments which prevented the preaching of true Islam, for the condition of Jahiliya (the state of ignorance or ‘barbarism’ before the coming of Islam) was also to be found in the ‘here and now’. This concept was thoroughly modern in its espousal of an ‘existentialist’ action-oriented commitment. Even the virulent anti-Semitism with which he responded to the Arab-Israeli conflict was imported, based upon the uncritical adoption of the ideology of the Nazis, with whom leading Arab nationalists allied themselves in the 1940s. Qutb advocated the creation of a new élite among Muslim youth who would fight against jahiliya as the Prophet had fought the old one. Like the Prophet and his Companions, this élite must choose when to withdraw from the Jahiliya and when to seek contact with it. His ideas set the agenda for Islamic radicals throughout the Sunni Muslim world. Those influenced by his thinking included Khalid Islambuli and Abd al-Salaam Farraj, executed for the murder of President Anwar Sadat in October 1981, and the Hizb al-Tahrir (Liberation Party) founded in 1952 by Shaikh Taqi al-Din al-Nabahani (1910-77), a graduate of al-Azhar whose writings laid down detailed prescriptions for a restored caliphate.

The Iranian Revolution & The Wider Muslim World:

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While Qutb’s writings have remained an important influence on Islamic radicals or ‘Islamists’ from Algeria (below) to Pakistan, a major boost to the movement came from Iran where Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-89) came to power after the collapse of the Pahlavi régime in February 1979. Khomeini had also developed critiques of Western materialism and moral decadence which drew on fascist attacks on democracy and admiration for the dictators of the 1930s. The ‘Islamic’ Constitution of Iran, introduced by Khomeini in 1979 was far from being subject to Shari’a law, however, since the Ayatollah made it clear that the Islamic state, as the successor to the Prophet Muhammad, had the power to override religious law, even in such fundamentals of the faith as prayer, fasting and pilgrimage. During the final two decades of the twentieth century, the Iranian Revolution remained the inspiration for  ‘Islamists’ from Morocco to Indonesia.

Demonstrators in Algiers, December 1960.Credit Associated Press

Despite this universalist appeal, however, the revolution never succeeded in spreading beyond the confines of Shi’ite communities and even among them its capacity to mobilise the people remained limited. During the eight-year war that followed Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980, the Iraqi Shi’i who formed about fifty per cent of the population conspicuously failed to support their co-religionists in Iran. However, the revolution did spread to Shi’i communities in Lebanon, where the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, the ‘Party of God’ gained influence and became entrenched in the conflicts and politics of the region as a ‘militia’ as well as a political party in Lebanon itself (see below). The Revolution also influenced developments in Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but generally proved unable to cross the sectarian divide. As in Iraq, the new Shi’ite activism in these countries stirred up sectarian conflicts and led to severe repression by Sunni governments.

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Within Iran the triumph of the revolution had rested on three factors usually absent from the Sunni world: the mixing of Shi’ite and revolutionary ideas among the radicalised urban youth during the 1970s; the autonomy of the Shi’i religious establishment which, unlike the Sunni ‘Ulema, disposed of a considerable measure of social power as a body or ‘estate’; and the eschatological expectations of popular Shi’ism surrounding the return of the ‘Twelfth Imam’. The leading Shi’ite exponent of Islam as a revolutionary ideology was Ali Shari’ati (d. 1977), a historian and sociologist who had been partly educated in Paris. His teachings were a rich mix of the Theosophical ideas of Islamic mystics with the philosophical theories of Marx, Sartre, Camus and Fanon. The result was an eclectic synthesis of Islamic and Marxist ideas in which the will of God was identified with the will of the People, justifying revolutionary action in the name of Islam. Shari’ati’s ideas, disseminated on photocopies and audio tapes, provided a vital link between the student vanguard and the more conservative forces which brought down the Shah’s régime. The Shah’s agricultural and social reforms threatened the interest of the religious establishment, not least because the estates from which many of the ‘ulema drew their incomes were expropriated or divided up. Exiled to Najaf in Iraq, Khomeini developed his theory of government which broke with tradition by insisting that it be entrusted directly to the religious establishment.

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Outside Iran, however, the factors that contributed to the Islamic revolution have continued to sustain the Islamist movements, accounting for the continuing popularity of their ideologies. The collapse of communism and the failure of Marxism to overcome the stigma of ‘atheism’ has made ‘Islamism’ seem an attractive ideological weapon against regimes grown increasingly corrupt, authoritarian and sometimes tyrannical. The rhetoric of national liberation, appropriated by monopolist ruling parties, has become discredited as those parties have failed to address fundamental economic and structural problems, and have increasingly been seen as being controlled by tribal coteries or political cliques indifferent to the needs of the majority. In Egypt and Algeria, qualified successes achieved by governments in the field of education have rebounded on them, as graduates from state universities have found their career opportunities blocked. As centres of opposition mosques will always enjoy a certain privileged status. They are not just places of worship, but also provide a network of communications which will always be partially independent of the state.

At the same time, the new communications technologies have brought the previously illiterate classes into the political process in an unprecedented way, undermining the authority of literate elites, notably the ‘ulema. The rise of mass education and the development of audio-visual means of communication in the late twentieth century led to a decline in the traditional sources of religious authority among both the ‘ulema and the Sufi brotherhoods. This gap was filled by a variety of movements and leaders, all of whom claimed a religious legitimacy for their acts. Increasingly, the carriers of religious knowledge have been those who claim a strong Islamic commitment, as is the case with many educated urban youths. The religious revival in modern Islam is a reflection of the pace of social and technological change in the Muslim world, particularly the disruptive effects of a rapid increase in urbanisation. This increase in the observance evidenced by such indicators as prayer, fasting and the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mekka, is inevitably associated with the political aspirations of many Muslims, most of whom live in post-colonial states run by governments perceived as lacking in moral or spiritual authority.

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Numerous studies have shown that migration from the countryside to the cities throughout the second half of the last century has often led to an increase in religiosity, as a more intense and self-conscious style of religious observance compensated for the more relaxed rhythms of village life. The recently urbanised underclass has been particularly susceptible to the messages of populist preachers. At the same time, the Islamist movements earnt respect by providing a network of welfare services able to fill the gaps caused by government shortfalls. Restrictions on spending imposed by the International Monetary Fund in various countries tended to exacerbate housing and welfare problems by forcing cuts in social services, leading to the withdrawal of the state from some areas and its replacement by Islamic welfare and charitable organisations, in receipt of generous sources of funding from oil-rich Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. With rapid urbanisation and the growth of shanty-towns, the old systems of patronage began to break down, as sheikhs, notables and local party bosses became detached from their previous clients. The former nationalist rhetoric, whether Nasserite or Baathist, was then discredited by the corruption of the regimes of Egypt, Iraq and Syria. As one Arab journalist has written:

It is into this vacuum of organisation and power that the Islamic groups have stepped to impose their authority and discipline. The organisation they impose is not one of popular participation. The activists and militants remain in charge, and the common people, to whom they provide services against modest payments, are considered as subjects of ethical reform, to be converted to orthodox conformity and mobilised in political support.

But though Islamist movements have been inspired by local initiatives, international factors should not be ignored. Veterans of the Afghan war against the Soviet occupation formed the core of armed and trained Islamist groups in Algeria, Yemen and Egypt. At the height of the Afghan War, there are said to have been between ten and twelve thousand mujaheddin from various Arab countries, financed by mosques and private contributions from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Many of them, ironically, were reported to have been trained and equipped by the US CIA. Saudi influence has also operated at the centre of religious and ideological activity. Many of the Islamists active in Egypt and Algeria spent time in Saudi Arabia as teachers or exiles, where they became ‘converted’ to the rigid, puritanical version of the faith practised there. Everywhere, Islamization policies, whether imposed ‘from above’ by governments or applied locally ‘from below’, have led to restrictions on the rights of women and religious minorities as modernist interpretations have given ground to more traditionalist attitudes.

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The tendency to articulate political aims in Islamic terms found constituencies in newly urbanised migrants whose understandings were typically formed in rural village milieu by mullahs or ‘ulama with minimal access to modernist influences. Consequently, the modernist tendency which formed an important strand in the discourse of ‘Abduh, Qutb, Banna and even Maududi tended to wither before the traditionalism of the recently mobilised masses. This had by no means happened everywhere, however, by the end of the century. In central Asia, the people generally rejected the ‘Islamist’ alternative after the collapse of the Soviet Union, despite a resurgence of Islamic education in schools and colleges. While Russian manipulation partly accounted for the return of the old communist nomenklatura under nationalist labels, it also became clear that in societies where literacy was universal a consensus in favour of Islamic forms of government was conspicuously absent. The revivalist movements were modern, not just in their methods, including sophisticated organisational techniques as well as the use of guns, rockets and bombs. They also absorbed into traditional Islamic discourse many ideas imported from outside Islam. In the Muslim heartlands, as Olivier Roy pointed out, modernisation had already occurred, but it had not been absorbed within a commonly recognised and accepted conceptual framework. It had happened…

… through rural exodus, emigration, consumption, the change in family behaviour (a lower birthrate) but also through the cinema, music, clothing, satellite antennas, that is, through the globalisation of culture.

Globalisation, Islamism & Traditional Islam:

The resulting confusion has particularly affected the position of women, formerly the protected and symbolically ‘invisible’ half of the traditional Muslim societies. As in most other parts of the world the global economy was breaking down old extended family structures, leading to a growing necessity for women to earn cash incomes or to increase their earnings and be recognised for their efforts. Similar considerations apply to sectarian issues. Under modern conditions, sectarian or ethnic rivalries that coexisted in a rough or ritualised manner in pre-modern times acquired a murderous dimension. In marked contrast to their predecessors, modern Muslim governments have tried to enforce religious and ideological uniformity on all their citizens, regardless of religious background. The result has been a significant increase in sectarian conflicts in countries with different Muslim traditions, including Turkey and Pakistan. The legitimacy of the territorial governments established after decolonisation was always open to challenge on Islamic grounds. The new national states were imposed on societies where the culture of public institutions was weak and where ties of kinship prevailed over allegiances to corporate bodies. In most Middle Eastern countries and many others beyond the Muslim heartlands, the ruling institutions fell victim to manipulation by factions based on kinship, regional or sectarian loyalties. In the period following decolonisation, the new elites legitimised themselves by appealing to nationalist goals.

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The decline of the traditional forms of spirituality was accompanied by the construction of a political ideology using some of the symbols culled from the historical repertoire of Islam to the exclusion of others. This ideology, sometimes mistakenly referred to as ‘Radical Islam’ or ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, is better described as ‘Islamism’, along with all the other ideological ‘isms’ of the twentieth century. Islamism is not Islam, though the lines distinguishing them are frequently being continuously blurred, both accidentally and deliberately. Following the collapse of communism, Islamism seemed likely to dominate the political discourse in Muslim lands for the foreseeable future. But for all the anxieties about a clash of civilisations, it seemed unlikely, at the turn of the millennium, that that discourse would effect significant change in the international, inter-faith dialogue. At that point, the practical effects of Islamization seemed to entail, not a confrontation with the West, but rather a cultural retreat into the mosque and private family space. Because the Shari’a protects the family, the only institution to which it grants real autonomy, the culture of Muslims was likely to become increasingly passive, privatised and consumer-oriented.

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At the same time, as in the collapse of communism in central-Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s, it became impossible to censor satellite dishes, videos, fax machines, e-mail and access to the Internet. Muslim-dominated states were not isolated but locked into an international and increasingly global communications system. Despite turbulence in Algeria and episodes of violence in Egypt, there had been fewer violent changes of government in the Middle East between 1970 and 1999 than in the previous two decades when different versions of Arab nationalism competed for power. Yet the political instability in Pakistan and the continuing civil war in Afghanistan indicated that ‘Islam’ in its contemporary ideological forms was unable to transcend ethnic and sectarian divisions. The territorial state, though never formally sanctified by Islamic tradition, was proving highly resilient, not least because of the support it received militarily and economically through the international system.

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Above left: Mujaheddin on the move in the hills. Right: Soviet armoured forces deploying in Kabul, December 1979. The heavy vehicles, confined to the roads in mountainous country, were easy targets for the guerrillas.

In the long-term, Ruthven predicted, the globalisation of culture through the revolution in communications technology had to lead to secularisation in Muslim societies, not least because of the increasing availability of religious and cultural choice. A significant factor would be the presence of a large and growing Muslim diaspora educated in the West and able to rediscover in Islam a voluntary faith freed from the imperatives of enforcement while finding an outlet for Islamic values through voluntary activity. Though the political currents of exoteric Islam appeared, even then, to be in the ascendant, it was in the pietistic and mystic traditions that future promise seemed to lie. Both Maududi and al-Banna built pietism into their systems, believing that society must be converted before the state could be conquered. Although the militants and activists who followed them were obsessed with the corruption of governments and embittered  by the appalling treatment many of them received at the hands of the police, tended to focus on action, not least because killings and bombings were bound to attract attention in an international culture dominated by television, there was evidence that quietist versions of Islam are rapidly gaining ground. With globalisation eroding the classic distinction between dar al-Islam and dar al-Harb, Ruthven argued that the coming decades were likely to see a retreat from direct political action and a renewed emphasis on the personal and private aspects of faith.

For all the efforts of political Islam to conquer the state on the basis of a new collective ideology constructed on the ruins of Marxism-Leninism and making use of some of its materials, the processes of historical and technological change pointed remorselessly towards increasing individualism and personal choice, the primary agents of secularisation. While regional conflicts continued in Palestine and Kashmir and there was a struggle for political power in Algeria, all of which were articulated in Islamist terms, any realistic assessment of the long-term prospects for the Muslim world included the view that modernisation was bound to happen. It was a global process that no longer needed to be predicated on Western post-imperial hegemony. The problem of disentangling what was universally ‘modern’ from what is culturally specific to any one tradition, whether Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist or Confucian, was far from simple. Ruthven believed that, despite historical differences in the relations between the state and civil society, the Muslim world would develop along the lines previously travelled by the post-Christian West. For all the protestations to the contrary, the faith would be internalized, becoming private and voluntary. In an era when individuals were ever less bound by ties of kinship and increasingly exposed to urban anomie, Muslim souls were likely to find the Sufi path of inner exploration and voluntary association more rewarding than revolutionary politics. Sadly, Ruthven observed, more blood could be expected to be spilt along the way. He did not have to wait long for his observation to be proved correct.

Flashpoints in The Rise of Islamism in Western Europe:

One of the key turning points in the reaction to the rise of Islamism in the West revolved around Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a young Somali refugee to the Netherlands, who had fled to Holland in the 1990s to escape a forced marriage. She was in every way a ‘model migrant’. Having claimed and being given asylum, she learned Dutch while working in basic factory jobs, and was soon able to apply to university. She studied at the University of Leiden whilst working with other immigrants as a translator. Just over a decade after arriving in the Netherlands she began working as a researcher and entered the country’s Parliament as an MP for the Liberal Party. Hers was a meteoric immigrant success story, which was due to her intelligence, charisma and exceptional personal bravery. But the swiftness of her rise to prominence also occurred because Dutch society desperately needed immigrant success stories. But she refused to say the things that many expected of her, and later wrote that the 9/11 attacks caused her to…

… investigate whether the roots of evil can be traced to the faith I grew up with: was the aggression, the hatred inherent in Islam itself? 

Six months later she read a book on atheism she had been given several years earlier and dared to admit that she was no longer a believer. But the Dutch media tried to make her say things they would not say, that Islam was backward compared with Dutch society. It was, after all, harder to accuse a black woman of racism than it was a white man. Her ‘supporters’ found a way around this dilemma by claiming that she was confused and ‘traumatized’ by her experiences as a victim of female genital mutilation, someone who as a teenager believed in the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and had fled forced marriage and understood at first hand the challenges of integration. She found herself assailed not just by a large proportion of the Dutch political class, but with vitriol by the country’s Muslim community. Then in 2004, the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh made a short film called Submission about the mistreatment of women within Islam, the script for which was written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The film was screened on Dutch television at the end of August and the threat to the film’s makers grew. Van Gogh refused to accept the security that was offered, and in 2004 he was assassinated by Mohammed Bouyeri. The knife stuck into van Gogh’s chest contained a threat to the life of Ayaan Hirst Ali. She was immediately spirited out of the country by the Dutch security service.

Photo from the January 11th National Unity march in Paris

Above: Paris, 2015. The reaction to the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices.

In 2005, the publication of a small circulation newspaper in Denmark, Jyllands-Posten demonstrated another flashpoint in the new era which had begun with the Rushdie affair sixteen years earlier. If a Dane in the 1990s had said that the story which would bring the most attention to their country in the next decade would most likely be a ‘cartoon crisis’, the Danish people would have thought the person unhinged. The editor of the newspaper could not find a cartoonist willing to illustrate a series of books on the world’s religions to include images that some Muslims might find offensive. Startled that such a taboo should exist in a free society, the newspaper tested whether it was breakable. They showed that it was, but at a great cost. As well as leading to riots and embassy-burnings across ‘the Muslim world’, there were also protests by Muslims throughout Europe. In London, protesters outside the Danish Embassy held signs saying ‘Freedom go to hell’ and ‘Behead those who insult Islam’. After several thwarted attempts on the life of Kurt Westergaard, one of the cartoonists, an axe-wielding assassin trained by al-Shabaab in Africa broke into his house on New Year’s Day 2010 in an effort to decapitate him. He was saved by the safe-room he had installed. In the wake of the Danish affair, ‘cartoon crises’ started breaking out across Europe.

Many people wondered how God and the prophet Muhammad would react to the attrocities fulfilled in their name on the world.

In 2006, in Norway, the editor of the Christian paper Magazinet chose to reproduce the Danish cartoons to show his readers what all the fuss was about. The Norweigan Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, not only criticised the paper’s editor for doing so but also threatened him with being prosecuted. When a mob burnt down the Norwegian Embassy in Damascus, Stoltenberg claimed that the paper was jointly responsible for the outrage and its editor was forced into hiding. The next year it was Sweden’s turn when the artist Lars Vilks drew a picture of Mohammed and was chased into hiding. In the years that followed, there were numerous assassination attempts on him. In 2011, the Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, one of the few publications to reprint the Danish cartoons, were firebombed. In 2013, the Danish journalist and historian Lars Hedegaard, a prominent critic of Islam, was shot at his door. He survived because the assassin’s gun jammed on the second bullet. Then, on 7 January 2015, two al-Qaeda assassins again attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo, killing the bodyguards assigned by the state and massacred most of the editorial team. A month later, a meeting in support of the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks in Copenhagen was attacked by a young Danish-born gunman. Both the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen ended with subsequent attacks on Jewish ‘targets’, a kosher supermarket in the former and a synagogue in the latter.

Paris-Brussels terrorist attacks 2015-2016

In the aftermath of large-scale terrorist attacks – in Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, Paris in 2015 and Belgium in 2016 – governments had to do something. Most proved able to address the specific counter-terrorism aspects of the problem, but in June 2007 two car bombs were left in the centre of London by a doctor in the NHS and another Muslim who was a PhD student. Both bombs were discovered before they could detonate. The new Labour Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, said that it would be wrong to describe such attacks as ‘Islamic terrorism’ because these terrorists were, in fact, behaving contrary to their faith. Six years later, following the hacking to death of Lee Rigby, a drummer in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers by two British Muslims in broad daylight outside Woolwich barracks, Prime Minister David Cameron emerged from Ten Downing Street and announced:

This was not just an attack on Britain, and on our British way of life. It was also a betrayal of Islam and of the Muslim communities who gave so much to our country. There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act.

The next year, responding to the beheading of a British aid worker in Syria by ‘John’, a British-born jihadi, Cameron said:

They claim to do this in the name of Islam. That is nonsense. Islam is a religion of peace. They are not Muslims; they are monsters.

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Above: The Gulf War – US marines at Khabji, Saudi Arabia, reinforce the front line.       The Marines suffered casualties here.

Throughout the decades which had gone before these events, European politicians had failed to address or consider the growth of ‘Islamist’ ideology among new immigrant communities and radicalization of the third generation of British-born Muslims. Politicians and the media, in general, minimised the differences between Islam and other faiths and backed the ‘moderate leaders’ of a ‘reformed Islam’ which would prevail in Europe. In doing so, they displayed their utter ignorance of Islamic history from the tenth to the twentieth century, which had witnessed many reform movements, all of which had been defeated by the force, arguments and appeals to scriptural authority by traditionalists, revitalised by events such as the Iranian Revolution and the wars in the Gulf states and Afghanistan. In a speech to the Conservative Party Conference in 2014, the then British Home Secretary, Theresa May, did what almost every European politician was doing, which was to stress the peacefulness of Islam and to quote some of her favourite verses from the Qur’an. Having witnessed the forcefulness with which many Muslims were willing to ‘defend’ their faith, it appeared to have become the attitude of the political mainstream simply allow the ‘religion’ its place in the multi-faith pantheon, rather than to initiate a deeper dialogue about the spread of ‘Islamism’ and its negative impact on the ‘true faith’. Critics of the religion, both external and internal, were further marginalised from the mainstream. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was eventually let out of protective custody, but soon after she had her Dutch citizenship withdrawn and she moved to the United States, becoming, as Salman Rushdie subsequently put it, maybe the first refugee from Western Europe since the Holocaust. 

Victims at Maalbeek Metrostation in the EU heart of Brussels 2016 03 22

Above: Belgium under attack, March 2016.

The Demise of the Inter-Cultural Dialogue in the West:

A poll taken in Britain in 2006, the year after the Danish cartoons were published, showed that seventy-eight per cent of British Muslims believed the publishers of the cartoons should be prosecuted. A slightly smaller number, sixty-eight per cent, felt that anyone who insulted Islam should be prosecuted. The same poll found that almost one in five of them had some respect for Osama bin Laden. Nine years later, following the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, a survey showed twenty-seven per cent of British Muslims said they had ‘some sympathy’ for the motives of the attackers. Nearly a quarter said they believed violence against people who published images of Mohammed could be justified. The BBC, for whom the poll was carried out, ran it with a good news headline, Most British Muslims “oppose Muhammad cartoons reprisals”, whereas, in reality, it provided more alarming evidence of the penetration of ‘Islamist’ extremist ideas into the Muslim population. The combination of very high-visibility events and an awareness that what lies beneath the terrorism constitutes an even bigger problem means that in recent years the views of European politicians have increasingly diverged from those of their peoples. In the case of British public opinion, I have written more extensively about this divergence elsewhere on this site.

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French police enforce laws requiring a Muslim woman to remove clothing on a beach.

A poll carried out in the Netherlands in 2013 revealed that seventy-seven per cent of respondents said that Islam did not enrich their country; that seventy-three per cent said that there was ‘a relationship’ between Islam and terror attacks and that sixty-eight per cent thought there was ‘enough’ Islam in the Netherlands. The respondents were not confined to voters of any one political party but were from voters across the complete spectrum of Dutch political parties. Similar views have emerged across the continent over the past decade. In the same year, two years before the Paris terror attacks of 2015, seventy-three per cent of French people (around ten per cent of whom are Muslim) when polled said that they viewed Islam negatively, and seventy-four per cent said they regarded Islam as intolerant. In the same polls conducted elsewhere, fifty-five per cent of Dutch voters said they didn’t want any more Muslims in their country, fifty-six per cent of Germans associated Islam with a striving for political influence and sixty-seven per cent of French people said that they believed Islamic values to be ‘incompatible’ with the values of French society. These findings were not necessarily connected to the strong secular ethos of the French Republic since by 2015 two separate polls in Britain showed that only between twenty-two and thirty per cent of the general public felt that the values of Islam were ‘generally’ compatible with those of British society. These views were not confined to areas with high immigrant populations. When Scottish schoolchildren in Dundee were asked to list words they associated with Muslims, they volunteered ‘terrorists’, ‘scary’ and ‘9/11’. In response, an education programme was established in Scottish schools to persuade children that the 9/11 hijackers had ‘nothing to do with Islam’.

Maalbeek station G4S officer taking care of wounded tube passenger 2016 03 22

Above: A Muslim victim of the attacks in Belgium in March 2016 receives treatment from a Muslim ambulance man.

These approaches failed where they might have succeeded before partly because the internet had diversified the sources of information, but mainly and simply because of the passage of events, and also because of the growing divide between public perceptions and the blatant ‘politically correctness’ of such ‘re-education’ programmes. A poll carried out in Germany in 2012 also showed that sixty-four per cent of respondents made similar associations between Islam and violence while seventy per cent associated it with fanaticism and radicalism. Only seven per cent of Germans associated it with openness, tolerance and respect for human rights. Moreover, polling of the European populations never has shown a steady upward trajectory over the past decade, never showing concerns on these issues diminishing. So in 2010, as many as forty-seven per cent of Germans agreed with the statement, Islam does not belong in Germany, and by May 2016, following the mass migrations of 2015, the proportion who agreed had risen to sixty per cent. A recent survey showed that affiliation to Christianity is falling away in Britain faster than in almost any other country. By 2050, the projection suggests that affiliation will have fallen by a third in the United Kingdom from almost two-thirds in 2010 and will thus become a minority affiliation for the first time. By the same date, the same projection suggests that Britain will have the third largest Muslim population in Europe, higher than France, Germany or Belgium. The left-wing demography expert Eric Kaufmann wrote in 2010 that even in Switzerland by the end of the century forty per cent of the country’s fourteen-year-olds would be Muslim. Studies also show ethnic Swedes becoming a minority in Sweden within the lifespan of most people currently alive.

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The reasons for these demographic changes in relation to religious observance are complex, and there is no inevitability about the continuance of growth in active Muslim worshippers in Western secular societies compared with Christians. Those with a confessional rather than a simply nominal or ‘cultural’ allegiance to Christianity are, after all, charged with the responsibility of proselytising for their faith in the twenty-first century just as much as they were in the first century. Yet the critical analysis of the fundamentals of Christianity which began in Reformation Europe has not yet occurred to the same degree around the roots of Modern Islam. The growth of ‘Islamism’ has held back and diverted that tide of revision and reform. Those who continue that work in the West by engaging in serious Quranic scholarship often publish it under pseudonyms to avoid the charge of ‘blasphemy’. Just as anyone deemed to have blasphemed the religion of Islam in the Muslim majority world would find their life in danger, so too across Europe those who engage in academic criticism of the sources around the founder of Islam will also find themselves under sufficient threat from Islamist extremists that they may have to go into hiding or live under police protection. Since 1989 the texts, ideas and even images of Islam have become so heavily policed that Islam as a religion has been protected in a manner which is not afforded to other world religions.

Conclusion –  A Return to the Inner Struggle?:

It is therefore understandable that young Muslims becoming politically and religiously aware really do hold sacred and impervious to satire, criticism or even questioning, not just the original claims and teachings of the Qur’an, but the various Islamist interpretations of Jihad. If the laws regarding apostasy were to change, and adherence was to become a matter of the expression of free will and personal confession of faith, it is probable that Islam would be brought to the same state as the other world religions: deliteralised, demythologized and defanged. Indeed, one could argue that this was where the faith was heading before the Salman Rushdie affair and the terrorist outrages of the last two decades, into a future in which the ‘greater’ jihad representing the inner, spiritual struggle finally triumph over the ‘lesser’ jihad of struggles between powers and dominions. This might solve that ‘global’ conflict peacefully, and it would certainly alleviate the issues of integration of Muslim peoples and cultures into Western secular society, even if it were to create other moral conflicts, just as has been the case in post-Christian cultures.

Sources:

Douglas Murray (2018), The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. London: Bloomsbury.

Malisse Ruthven (2000), Islam: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP.

John Ferguson (1977), War and Peace in the World’s Religions. London: Sheldon Press.

W. Owen Cole (ed:) (1982), World Religions: A Handbook for Teachers. London: The Commission for Racial Equality.

Luc Heymans (1989), Trans Europe Peace: Linking bulletin for Peace Education movements among the EEC State members. Namur: Universite De Paix.

 

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Roots of Liberal Democracy, Part Five: The Rise of “Populism” in Hungary & Europe, 2002-18.   1 comment

Hungary at the beginning of its Second Millennium:

The good old days: George W. Bush in Budapest, June 22, 2006

The Republican George W Bush became US President in January 2001, replacing Bill Clinton, the Democrat and ‘liberal’, whose eight years in the White House had come to an end during the first Orbán government, which lost the general election of 2002. Its Socialist successor was led first by Péter Medgyessy and then, from 2004-09, by Ferenc Gyurcsány (pictured below, on the left).

Ferenc Gyurcsány and M. André Goodfriend at the Conference on Hungary in Isolation and the Global World

In this first decade of the new millennium, relations between the ‘West’ and Hungary continued to progress as the latter moved ahead with its national commitment to democracy, the rule of law and a market economy under both centre-right and centre-left governments. They also worked in NATO (from 1999) and the EU (from 2004) to combat terrorism, international crime and health threats. In January 2003, Hungary was one of the eight central and eastern European countries whose leaders signed a letter endorsing US policy during the Iraq Crisis. Besides inviting the US Army to train Free Iraqi Forces as guides, translators and security personnel at the Taszár air base, Hungary also contributed a transportation company of three hundred soldiers to a multinational division stationed in central Iraq. Following Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast of the United States in the fall of 2005, members of a team of volunteer rescue professionals from Hungarian Baptist Aid were among the first international volunteers to travel to the region, arriving in Mississippi on 3 September. The following April, in response to the severe floods throughout much of Hungary, US-AID provided $50,000 in emergency relief funds to assist affected communities.

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During his visit to Budapest in June 2006, in anticipation the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 Uprising, President George W Bush gave a speech on Gellért Hill in the capital in which he remarked:

“The desire for liberty is universal because it is written into the hearts of every man, woman and child on this Earth. And as people across the world step forward to claim their own freedom, they will take inspiration from Hungary’s example, and draw hope from your success. … Hungary represents the triumph of liberty over tyranny, and America is proud to call Hungary a friend.” 

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The Origins and Growth of Populism in Europe:

Not without ambivalence, by the end of the first decade of the new millennium, Hungary had stepped out on the Occidental route it had anticipated for more than a century. This is why, from 1998 onwards, Hungarian political developments in general and the rise of FIDESZ-MPP as a formidable populist political force need to be viewed in the context of broader developments within the integrated European liberal democratic system shared by the member states of the European Union. Back in 1998, only two small European countries – Switzerland and Slovakia – had populists in government. Postwar populists found an early toehold in Europe in Alpine countries with long histories of nationalist and/or far-right tendencies. The exclusionist, small-government Swiss People’s Party (SVP) was rooted in ‘authentic’ rural resistance to urban and foreign influence, leading a successful referendum campaign to keep Switzerland out of the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1992, and it has swayed national policy ever since. The Swiss party practically invented right-wing populism’s ‘winning formula’; nationalist demands on immigration, hostility towards ‘neo-liberalism’ and a fierce focus on preserving national traditions and sovereignty. In Austria, neighbour to both Switzerland and Hungary, the Freedom Party, a more straightforward right-wing party founded by a former Nazi in 1956, won more than twenty per cent of the vote in 1994 and is now in government, albeit as a junior partner, for the fourth time.

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The immediate effect of the neo-liberal shock in countries like Hungary, Slovakia and Poland was a return to power of the very people who the imposition of a free market was designed to protect their people against, namely the old Communist ‘apparatchiks’, now redefining themselves as “Socialist” parties. They were able to scoop up many of the ‘losers’ under the new system, the majority of voters, the not inconsiderable number who reckoned, probably rightly, that they had been better off under the socialist system, together with the ‘surfers’ who were still in their former jobs, though now professing a different ideology, at least on the surface. In administration and business, the latter were well-placed to exploit a somewhat undiscriminating capitalist capitalism and the potential for corruption in what was euphemistically called “spontaneous” privatisation. Overall, for many people in these transition-challenged countries, the famously witty quip of the ‘losers’ in post-Risorgimento liberal Italy seemed to apply: “we were better off when we were worse off”.  The realisation of what was happening nevertheless took some time to seep through into the consciousness of voters. The role of the press and media was crucial in this, despite the claim of Philipp Ther (2014) claim that many…

… journalists, newspapers and radio broadcasters remained loyal to their régimes for many years, but swiftly changed sides in 1989. More than by sheer opportunism, they were motivated by a sense of professional ethics, which they retained despite all Communist governments’ demand, since Lenin’s time, for ‘partynost’ (partisanship).

In reality, journalists were relatively privileged under the old régime, provided they toed the party line, and were determined to be equally so in the new dispensation. Some may have become independent-minded and analytical, but very many more exhibited an event greater partisanship after what the writer Péter Eszterházy called rush hour on the road to Damascus. The initial behaviour of the press after 1989 was a key factor in supporting the claim of the Right, both in Poland and Hungary, that the revolution was only ‘half-completed’. ‘Liberal’ analysis does not accept this and is keen to stress only the manipulation of the media by today’s right-wing governments. But even Paul Lendvai has admitted that, in Hungary, in the first years after the change, the media was mostly sympathetic to the Liberals and former Communists.

This was a long time ago: Viktor Orbán and Zoltán Pokorni in 2004

On the other hand, he has also noted that both the Antall and the first Orbán government (1998-2002) introduced strong measures to remedy this state of affairs. Apparently, when Orbán complained to a Socialist politician of press bias, the latter suggested that he should “buy a newspaper”, advice which he subsequently followed, helping to fuel ongoing ‘liberal’ complaints about the origins of the one-sided nature of today’s media in Hungary. Either way, Damascene conversions among journalists could be detected under both socialist and conservative nationalist governments.

The Great Financial Meltdown of 2007-2009 & All That!:

The financial meltdown that originated in the US economy in 2007-08 had one common factor on both sides of the Atlantic, namely the excess of recklessly issued credit resulting in massive default, chiefly in the property sector. EU countries from Ireland to Spain to Greece were in virtual meltdown as a result. Former Communist countries adopted various remedies, some taking the same IMF-prescribed medicine as Ireland. It was in 2008, as the financial crisis and recession caused living standards across Europe to shrink, that the established ruling centrist parties began to lose control over their volatile electorates. The Eurocrats in Brussels also became obvious targets, with their ‘clipboard austerity’, especially in their dealings with the Mediterranean countries and with Greece in particular. The Visegrád Four Countries had more foreign direct investment into industrial enterprises than in many other members of the EU, where the money went into ‘financials’ and real estate, making them extremely vulnerable when the crisis hit. Philipp Ther, the German historian of Europe Since 1989, has argued that significant actors, including Václav Klaus in the Czech Republic, preached the ‘gospel of neo-liberalism’ but were pragmatic in its application.

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the EC, delivered his first State of the Union Address 2015 "Time for Honesty, Unity and Solidarity" at the plenary session of the EP in Strasbourg, chaired by Martin Schulz, President of the EP. (EC Audiovisual Services, 09/09/2015)

The Man the ‘Populists’ love to hate:  Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission since November 2014, when he succeeded Jóse Manuel Barroso. Although seen by many as the archetypal ‘Eurocrat’, by the time he left office as the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Juncker was the longest-serving head of any national government in the EU, and one of the longest-serving democratically elected leaders in the world, his tenure encompassing the height of the European financial and sovereign debt crisis. From 2005 to 2013, Juncker served as the first permanent President of the Eurogroup.

Dealing with the case of Hungary, László Csaba has expressed his Thoughts on Péter Ákos Bod’s Book, published recently, in the current issue of Hungarian Review (November 2018). In the sixth chapter of his book, Bod admits that the great financial meltdown of 2007-09 did not come out of the blue, and could have been prepared for more effectively in Hungary. Csaba finds this approach interesting, considering that the recurrent motif in the international literature of the crisis has tended to stress the general conviction among ‘experts’ that nothing like what happened in these years could ever happen again. Bod points out that Hungary had begun to lag behind years before the onslaught of the crisis, earlier than any of its neighbours and the core members of the EU. The application of solutions apparently progressive by international standards often proved to be superficial in their effects, however. In reality, the efficiency of governance deteriorated faster than could have been gleaned from macroeconomic factors. This resulted in excessive national debt and the IMF had to be called in by the Socialist-Liberal coalition. The country’s peripheral position and marked exposure were a given factor in this, but the ill-advised decisions in economic policy certainly added to its vulnerability. Bod emphasises that the stop-and-go politics of 2002-2010 were heterodox: no policy advisor or economic textbook ever recommended a way forward, and the detrimental consequences were accumulating fast.

As a further consequence of the impact of the ongoing recession on the ‘Visegrád’ economies, recent statistical analyses by Thomas Piketty have shown that between 2010 and 2016 the annual net outflow of profits and incomes from property represented on average 4.7 per cent of GDP in Poland, 7.2 per cent in Hungary, 7.6 per cent in the Czech Republic and 4.2 per cent in Slovakia, reducing commensurately the national income of these countries. By comparison, over the same period, the annual net transfers from the EU, i.e. the difference between the totality of expenditure received and the contributions paid to the EU budget were appreciably lower: 2.7 per cent of GDP in Poland, 4.0 per cent in Hungary, 1.9 per cent in the Czech Republic and 2.2 per cent in Slovakia. Piketty added that:

East European leaders never miss an opportunity to recall that investors take advantage of their position of strength to keep wages low and maintain excessive margins.

He cites a recent interview with the Czech PM in support of this assertion. The recent trend of the ‘Visegrád countries’ to more nationalist and ‘populist’ governments suggests a good deal of disillusionment with global capitalism. At the very least, the theory of “trickle down” economics, whereby wealth created by entrepreneurs in the free market, assisted by indulgent attitudes to business on the part of the government, will assuredly filter down to the lowest levels of society, does not strike the man on the Budapest tram as particularly plausible. Gross corruption in the privatisation process, Freunderlwirtschaft, abuse of their privileged positions by foreign investors, extraction of profits abroad and the volatility of “hot money” are some of the factors that have contributed to the disillusionment among ‘ordinary’ voters. Matters would have been far worse were it not for a great deal of infrastructural investment through EU funding. Although Poland has been arguably the most “successful” of the Visegrád countries in economic terms, greatly assisted by its writing off of most of its Communist-era debts, which did not occur in Hungary, it has also moved furthest to the right, and is facing the prospect of sanctions from the EU (withdrawal of voting rights) which are also, now, threatened in Hungary’s case.

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Bod’s then moves on to discuss the economic ‘recovery’ from 2010 to 2015. The former attitude of seeking compromise was replaced by sovereignty-based politics, coupled with increasingly radical government decisions. What gradually emerged was an ‘unorthodox’ trend in economic management measures, marking a break with the practices of the previous decade and a half, stemming from a case-by-case deliberation of government and specific single decisions made at the top of government. As such, they could hardly be seen as revolutionary, given Hungary’s historical antecedents, but represented a return to a more authoritarian form of central government. The direct peril of insolvency had passed by the middle of 2012, employment had reached a historic high and the country’s external accounts began to show a reliable surplus.

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Elsewhere in Europe, in 2015, Greece elected the radical left-wing populists of Syriza, originally founded in 2004 as a coalition of left-wing and radical left parties, into power. Party chairman Alexis Tsipras served as Prime Minister of Greece from January 2015 to August 2015 and, following subsequent elections, from September 2015 to the present. In Spain, meanwhile, the anti-austerity Podemos took twenty-one per cent of the vote in 2015 just a year after the party was founded. Even in famously liberal Scandinavia, nation-first, anti-immigration populists have found their voice over the last decade. By 2018, eleven countries have populists in power and the number of Europeans ruled by them has increased from fourteen million to 170 million. This has been accounted for by everything from the international economic recession to inter-regional migration, the rise of social media and the spread of globalisation. Recently, western Europe’s ‘solid inner circle’ has started to succumb. Across Europe as a whole, right-wing populist parties, like Geert Wilder’s (pictured above) anti-Islam Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands, have also succeeded in influencing policy even when not in government, dragging the discourse of their countries’ dominant centre-right parties further to the Right, especially on the issues of immigration and migration.

The Migration Factor & the Crisis of 2015:

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Just four momentous years ago, in her New Year message on 31 December 2014, Chancellor Merkel (pictured right) singled out these movements and parties for criticism, including Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), founded in direct response to her assertion at the height of the financial crisis that there was “no alternative” to the EU bailing out Greece. The German people, she insisted, must not have “prejudice, coldness or hatred” in their hearts, as these groups did. Instead, she urged the German people to a new surge of openness to refugees.

Apart from the humanitarian imperative, she argued, Germany’s ‘ageing population’ meant that immigration would prove to be a benefit for all of us. The following May, the Federal Interior Minister announced in Berlin that the German government was expecting 450,000 refugees to arrive in the country that coming year. Then in July 1915, the human tragedy of the migration story burst into the global news networks. In August, the German Interior Ministry had already revised the country’s expected arrivals for 2015 up to 800,000, more than four times the number of arrivals in 2014. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees pondered the question of what they would do with the people coming up through Greece via ‘the Balkan route’ to Hungary and on to Germany. Would they be sent back to Hungary as they ought to have been under international protocols? An agreement was reached that this would not happen, and this was announced on Twitter on 25 August which said that we are no longer enforcing the Dublin procedures for Syrian citizens. Then, on 31 August, Angela Merkel told an audience of foreign journalists in Berlin that German flexibility was what was needed. She then went on to argue that Europe as a whole…

“… must move and states must share the responsibility for refugees seeking asylum. Universal civil rights were so far tied together with Europe and its history. If Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed. It won’t be the Europe we imagine. … ‘Wir schaffen das’ (‘We can do this’).

Much of the international media backed her stance, The Economist claiming that Merkel the bold … is brave, decisive and right. But across the continent ‘as a whole’ Merkel’s unilateral decision was to create huge problems in the coming months. In a Europe whose borders had come down and in which free movement had become a core principle of the EU, the mass movement through Europe of people from outside those borders had not been anticipated. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands were walking through central Europe on their way north and west to Germany, Denmark and Sweden. During 2015 around 400,000 migrants moved through Hungary’s territory alone. Fewer than twenty of them stopped to claim asylum within Hungary, but their passage through the country to the railway stations in Budapest had a huge impact on its infrastructure and national psychology.

Is this the truth?

By early September the Hungarian authorities announced that they were overwhelmed by the numbers coming through the country and declared the situation to be out of control. The government tried to stop the influx by stopping trains from leaving the country for Austria and Germany. Around fourteen thousand people were arriving in Munich each day. Over the course of a single weekend, forty thousand new arrivals were expected. Merkel had her spokesman announce that Germany would not turn refugees away in order to help clear the bottleneck in Budapest, where thousands were sleeping at the Eastern Station, waiting for trains. Some were tricked into boarding a train supposedly bound for Austria which was then held near a detention camp just outside Budapest. Many of the ‘migrants’ refused to leave the train and eventually decided to follow the tracks on foot back to the motorway and on to the border in huge columns comprising mainly single men, but also many families with children.

These actions led to severe criticism of Hungary in the international media and from the heads of other EU member states, both on humanitarian grounds but also because Hungary appeared to be reverting to national boundaries. But the country had been under a huge strain not of its own making. In 2013 it had registered around twenty thousand asylum seekers. That number had doubled in 2014, but during the first three winter months of 2015, it had more people arriving on its southern borders than in the whole of the previous year. By the end of the year, the police had registered around 400,000 people, entering the country at the rate of ten thousand a day. Most of them had come through Greece and should, therefore, have been registered there, but only about one in ten of them had been. As the Hungarians saw it, the Greeks had simply failed to comply with their obligations under the Schengen Agreement and EU law. To be fair to them, however, the migrants had crossed the Aegean sea by thousands of small boats, making use of hundreds of small, poorly policed islands. This meant that the Hungarian border was the first EU land border they encountered on the mainland.

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Above: Refugees are helped by volunteers as they arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos.

In July the Hungarian government began constructing a new, taller fence along the border with Serbia. This increased the flow into Croatia, which was not a member of the EU at that time, so the fence was then extended along the border between Croatia and Hungary. The Hungarian government claimed that these fences were the only way they could control the numbers who needed to be registered before transit, but they were roundly condemned by the Slovenians and Austrians, who now also had to deal with huge numbers on arriving on foot. But soon both Austria and Slovenia were erecting their own fences, though the Austrians claimed that their fence was ‘a door with sides’ to control the flow rather than to stop it altogether. The western European governments, together with the EU institutions’ leaders tried to persuade central-European countries to sign up to a quota system for relocating the refugees across the continent, Viktor Orbán led a ‘revolt’ against this among the ‘Visegrád’ countries.

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Douglas Murray has recently written in his best-selling book (pictured right, 2017/18) that the Hungarian government were also reflecting the will of their people in that a solid two-thirds of Hungarians polled during this period felt that their government was doing the right thing in refusing to agree to the quota number. In reality, there were two polls held in the autumn of 2015 and the spring of 2016, both of which had returns of less than a third, of whom two-thirds did indeed agree to a loaded question, written by the government, asking if they wanted to “say ‘No’ to Brussels”. In any case, both polls were ‘consultations’ rather than mandatory referenda, and on both occasions, all the opposition parties called for a boycott. Retrospectively, Parliament agreed to pass the second result into law, changing the threshold to two-thirds of the returns and making it mandatory.

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Murray has also claimed that the financier George Soros, spent considerable sums of money during 2015 on pressure groups and institutions making the case for open borders and free movement of migrants into and around Europe. The ideas of Karl Popper, the respected philosopher who wrote The Open Society and its Enemies have been well-known since the 1970s, and George Soros had first opened the legally-registered Open Society office in Budapest in 1987.

Soros certainly helped to found and finance the Central European University as an international institution teaching ‘liberal arts’ some twenty-five years ago, which the Orbán government has recently been trying to close by introducing tighter controls on higher education in general. Yet in 1989 Orbán himself received a scholarship from the Soros Foundation to attend Pembroke College, Oxford but returned after a few months to become a politician and leader of FIDESZ.

George Soros, the bogiey man

However, there is no evidence to support the claim that Soros’ foundation published millions of leaflets encouraging illegal immigration into Hungary, or that the numerous groups he was funding were going out of their way to undermine the Hungarian government or any other of the EU’s nation states.

Soros’ statement to Bloomberg that his foundation was upholding European values that Orbán, through his opposition to refugee quotas was undermining would therefore appear to be, far from evidence a ‘plot’, a fairly accurate reiteration of the position taken by the majority of EU member states as well as the ‘Brussels’ institutions. Soros’ plan, as quoted by Murray himself, treats the protection of refugees as the objective and national borders as the obstacle. Here, the ‘national borders’ of Hungary he is referring to are those with other surrounding EU states, not Hungary’s border with Serbia. So Soros is referring to ‘free movement’ within the EU, not immigration from outside the EU across its external border with Serbia. During the 2015 Crisis, a number of churches and charitable organisations gave humanitarian assistance to the asylum seekers at this border. There is no evidence that any of these groups received external funding, advocated resistance against the European border régime or handed out leaflets in Serbia informing the recipients of how to get into Europe.

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Viktor Orbán & The Strange Case of ‘Illiberal Democracy’:

On 15 March 2016, the Prime Minister of Hungary used the ceremonial speech for the National Holiday commemorating the 1848 Revolution to explain his wholly different approach to migration, borders, culture and identity. Viktor Orbán told those assembled by the steps of the National Museum that, in Douglas Murray’s summation, the new enemies of freedom were different from the imperial and Soviet systems of the past, that today they did not get bombarded or imprisoned, but merely threatened and blackmailed. In his own words, the PM set himself up as the Christian champion of Europe:

At last, the peoples of Europe, who have been slumbering in abundance and prosperity, have understood that the principles of life that Europe has been built on are in mortal danger. Europe is the community of Christian, free and independent nations…

Mass migration is a slow stream of water persistently eroding the shores. It is masquerading as a humanitarian cause, but its true nature is the occupation of territory. And what is gaining territory for them is losing territory for us. Flocks of obsessed human rights defenders feel the overwhelming urge to reprimand us and to make allegations against us. Allegedly we are hostile xenophobes, but the truth is that the history of our nation is also one of inclusion, and the history of intertwining of cultures. Those who have sought to come here as new family members, as allies, or as displaced persons fearing for their lives, have been let in to make new homes for themselves.

But those who have come here with the intention of changing our country, shaping our nation in their own image, those who have come with violence and against our will have always been met with resistance.

Népszava's headline: "He already speaks as a dictator / Getty Images

Yet behind these belligerent words, and in other comments and speeches, Viktor Orbán has made clear that his government is opposed taking in its quota of Syrian refugees on religious and cultural grounds. Robert Fico, the Slovakian leader, made this explicit when he stated just a month before taking over the Presidency of the European Union, that…

… Islam has no place in Slovakia: Migrants change the character of our country. We do not want the character of this country to change. 

It is in the context of this tide of unashamed Islamaphobia in central and eastern Europe that right-wing populism’s biggest advances have been made.  All four of the Visegrád countries (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary) are governed by populist parties. None of these countries has had any recent experience of immigration from Muslim populations in Africa or the Indian subcontinent, unlike many of the former imperial powers of western Europe. Having had no mass immigration during the post-war period, they had retained, in the face of Soviet occupation and dominance, a sense of national cohesion and a mono-cultural character which supported their needs as small nations with distinct languages. They also distrusted the West, since they had suffered frequent disappointments in their attempts to assert their independence from Soviet control and had all experienced, within living memory, the tragic dimensions of life that the Western allies had forgotten. So, too, we might add, did the Baltic States, a fact which is sometimes conveniently ignored. The events of 1956, 1968, 1989 and 1991 had revealed how easily their countries could be swept in one direction and then swept back again. At inter-governmental levels, some self-defined ‘Islamic’ countries have not helped the cause of the Syrian Muslim refugees. Iran, which has continued to back the Hezbollah militia in its fighting for Iranian interests in Syria since 2011, has periodically berated European countries for not doing more to aid the refugees. In September 2015, President Rouhani lectured the Hungarian Ambassador to Iran over Hungary’s alleged ‘shortcomings’ in the refugee crisis.

Or that?

For their part, the central-eastern European states continued in their stand-off with ‘Berlin and Brussels’. The ‘Visegrád’ group of four nations have found some strength in numbers. Since they continued to refuse migrant quotas, in December 2017 the European Commission announced that it was suing Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic at the European Court of Justice over this refusal. Sanctions and heavy fines were threatened down the line, but these countries have continued to hold out against these ‘threats’. But Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has benefited substantially from German investment, particularly in the auto industry. German business enjoys access to cheap, skilled and semi-skilled labour in Hungary, while Hungary benefits from the jobs and the tax revenue flowing from the investment. German business is pragmatic and generally ignores political issues as long as the investment climate is right. However, the German political class, and especially the German media, have been forcibly critical of Viktor Orbán, especially over the refugee and migrant issues. As Jon Henley reports, there are few signs of these issues being resolved:

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Philipp Ther’s treatment of Hungary in his History (2016) follows this line of criticism. He describes Orbán as being a ‘bad loser’ in the 2002 election and a ‘bad winner’ in 2010. Certainly, FIDESZ only started showing their true populist colours after their second victory in 2006, determined not to lose power after just another four years. They have now won four elections in succession.

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Viktor Orbán speaking during the 2018 Election campaign: “Only Fidesz!”

John Henley, European Affairs Correspondent of The Guardian, identifies the core values of FIDESZ as those of nationalism, cultural conservatism and authoritarianism. For the past decade, he claims, they have been attacking the core institutions of any liberal democracy, including an independent judiciary and a free press/ media. He argues that they have increasingly defined national identity and citizenship in terms of ethnicity and religion, demonising opponents, such as George Soros, in propaganda which is reminiscent of the anti-Semitism of the 1930s. This was particularly the case in the 2018 election campaign, in which ubiquitous posters showed him as the ‘puppet-master’ pulling the strings of the opposition leaders. In the disputed count, the FIDESZ-KDNP (Christian Democrat) Alliance in secured sixty-three per cent of the vote. The OSCE observers commented on the allusions to anti-Semitic tropes in the FIDESZ-KDNP campaign. In addition, since the last election, Jon Henley points out how, as he sees it, FIDESZ’s leaders have ramped up their efforts to turn the country’s courts into extensions of their executive power, public radio and television stations into government propaganda outlets, and universities into transmitters of their own narrowly nationalistic and culturally conservative values. Philipp Ther likewise accuses Orbán’s government of infringing the freedom of the press, and of ‘currying favour’ by pledging to put the international banks in their place (the miss-selling of mortgages in Swiss Francs was egregious in Hungary).

Defenders of Viktor Orbán’s government and its FIDESZ-KDNP supporters will dismiss this characterisation as stereotypical of ‘western liberal’ attacks on Orbán, pointing to the fact that he won forty-nine per cent of the popular vote in the spring elections and a near two-thirds parliamentary majority because the voters thought that overall it had governed the country well and in particular favoured its policy on migration, quotas and relocation. Nicholas T Parsons agrees that Orbán has reacted opportunistically to the unattractive aspects of inward “investment”, but says that it is wishful thinking to interpret his third landslide victory as in April 2018 as purely the result of manipulation of the media or the abuse of power. However, in reacting more positively to Ther’s treatment of economic ‘neo-liberalism’, Parsons mistakenly conflates this with his own attacks on ‘liberals’, ‘the liberal establishment’ and ‘the liberal élite’. He then undermines his own case by hankering after a “Habsburg solution” to the democratic and nationalist crisis in the “eastern EU”.  To suggest that a democratic model for the region can be based on the autocratic Austro-Hungarian Empire which finally collapsed in abject failure over a century ago is to stand the history of the region case on its head. However, he makes a valid point in arguing that the “western EU” could do more to recognise the legitimate voice of the ‘Visegrád Group’.

Nevertheless, Parsons overall claim that Orbán successfully articulates what many Hungarians feel is shared by many close observers. He argues that…

… commentary on the rightward turn in Central Europe has concentrated on individual examples of varying degrees of illiberalism, but has been too little concerned with why people are often keen to vote for governments ritualistically denounced by the liberal establishment  as ‘nationalist’ and ‘populist’. 

Gerald Frost, a staff member of the Danube Institute, recently wrote to The Times that while he did not care for the policies of the Orbán government, Hungary can be forgiven for wishing to preserve its sovereignty. But even his supporters recognise that his ‘innocent’ coining of the term “illiberal democracy” in a speech to young ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania in 2016. John O’Sullivan interpreted this at the time as referring to the way in which under the rules of ‘liberal democracy’, elected bodies have increasingly ceded power to undemocratic institutions like courts and unelected international agencies which have imposed ‘liberal policies’ on sovereign nation states. But the negative connotations of the phrase have tended to obscure the validity of the criticism it contains. Yet the Prime Minister has continued to use it in his discourse, for example in his firm response to the European Parliament’s debate on the Sargentini Report (see the section below):

Illiberal democracy is when someone else other than the liberals have won.

At least this clarifies that he is referring to the noun rather than to the generic adjective, but it gets us no further in the quest for a mutual understanding of ‘European values’. As John O’Sullivan points out, until recently, European politics has been a left-right battle between the socialists and the conservatives which the liberals always won. That is now changing because increasing numbers of voters, often in the majority, disliked, felt disadvantaged by, and eventually opposed policies which were more or less agreed between the major parties. New parties have emerged, often from old ones, but equally often as completely new creations of the alienated groups of citizens. In the case of FIDESZ, new wine was added to the old wine-skin of liberalism, and the bag eventually burst. A new basis for political discourse is gradually being established throughout Europe. The new populist parties which are arising in Europe are expressing resistance to progressive liberal policies. The political centre, or consensus parties, are part of an élite which have greater access to the levers of power and which views “populism” as dangerous to liberal democracy. This prevents the centrist ‘establishment’ from making compromises with parties it defines as extreme. Yet voter discontent stems, in part, from the “mainstream” strategy of keeping certain issues “out of politics” and demonizing those who insist on raising them.

“It’s the Economy, stupid!” – but is it?:

In the broader context of central European electorates, it also needs to be noted that, besides the return of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party in Poland, and the continued dominance of populist-nationalists in Slovakia, nearly a third of Czech voters recently backed the six-year-old Ano party led by a Trump-like businessman and outsider, who claims to be able to get things done in a way that careerist politicians cannot. But, writes Henley, the Czech Republic is still a long way from becoming another Hungary or Poland. Just 2.3% of the country’s workforce is out of a job, the lowest rate anywhere in the EU. Last year its economy grew by 4.3%, well above the average in central-Eastern Europe, and the country was untouched by the 2015 migration crisis. But in the 2017 general election, the populists won just over forty per cent of votes, a tenfold increase since 1998. Martin Mejstrik, from Charles University in Prague, commented to Henley:

“Here, there has been no harsh economic crisis, no big shifts in society. This is one of the most developed and successful post-communist states. There are, literally, almost no migrants. And nonetheless, people are dissatisfied.” 

Henley also quotes Jan Kavan, a participant in the Prague Spring of 1968, and one of the leaders of today’s Czech Social Democrats, who like the centre-left across Europe, have suffered most from the populist surge, but who nevertheless remains optimistic:

“It’s true that a measure of populism wins elections, but if these pure populists don’t combine it with something else, something real… Look, it’s simply not enough to offer people a feeling that you are on their side. In the long-term, you know, you have to offer real solutions.”

By contrast with the data on the Czech Republic, Péter Ákos Bod’s book concludes that the data published in 2016-17 failed to corroborate the highly vocal opinions about the exceptional performance of the Hungarian economy. Bod has found that the lack of predictability, substandard government practices, and the string of non-transparent, often downright suspect transactions are hardly conducive to long-term quality investments and an enduring path of growth they enable. He finds that Hungary does not possess the same attributes of a developed state as are evident in the Czech Republic, although the ‘deeper involvement and activism’ on the part of the government than is customary in western Europe ‘is not all that alien’ to Hungary given the broader context of economic history. László Csaba concludes that if Bod is correct in his analysis that the Hungarian economy has been stagnating since 2016, we must regard the Hungarian victory over the recent crisis as a Pyrrhic one. He suggests that the Orbán government cannot afford to hide complacently behind anti-globalisation rhetoric and that, …

… in view of the past quarter-century, we cannot afford to regard democratic, market-oriented developments as being somehow pre-ordained or inevitable. 

Delete Viktor

Above: Recent demonstrations against the Orbán government’s policies in Budapest.

By November 2018, it was clear that Steve Bannon (pictured below with the leader of the far-right group, Brothers of Italy, Giorgi Meloni and the Guardian‘s Paul Lewis in Venice), the ex-Trump adviser’s attempt to foment European populism ahead of the EU parliamentary elections in 2019, was failing to attract support from any of the right-wing parties he was courting outside of Italy. Viktor Orbán has signalled ambivalence about receiving a boost from an American outsider, which would undermine the basis of his campaign against George Soros. The Polish populists also said they would not join his movement, and after meeting Bannon in Prague, the populist president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, remained far from convinced, as he himself reported:

“He asked for an audience, got thirty minutes, and after thirty minutes I told him I absolutely disagree with his views and I ended the audience.”

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The ‘Furore’ over the Sargentini Report:

Judith-Sargentini-portret.jpg

In Hungary, the European Parliament’s overwhelming acceptance of the Sargentini Report has been greeted with ‘outrage’ by many Hungarian commentators and FIDESZ supporters. Judith Sargentini (pictured right) is a Dutch politician and Member of the European Parliament (MEP), a member of the Green Left. Her EP report alleges, like the Guardian article quoted above, that democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental human rights are under systematic threat in Hungary.

The subsequent vote in the European Parliament called for possible sanctions to be put in place, including removal of the country’s voting rights within the EU institutions. FIDESZ supporters argue that the European Parliament has just denounced a government and a set of policies endorsed by the Hungarian electorate in a landslide. The problem with this interpretation is that the policies which were most criticised in the EU Report were not put to the electorate, which was fought by FIDESZ-KDNP on the migration issue to the exclusion of all others, including the government’s performance on the economy. Certainly, the weakness and division among the opposition helped its cause, as voters were not offered a clear, unified, alternative programme.

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But does the EU’s criticism of Hungary really fit into this “pattern” as O’Sullivan describes it, or an international left-liberal “plot”? Surely the Sargentini Report is legitimately concerned with the Orbán government’s blurring of the separation of powers within the state, and potential abuses of civil rights and fundamental freedoms, and not with its policies on immigration and asylum. Orbán may indeed be heartily disliked in Brussels and Strasbourg for his ‘Eurosceptic nationalism’, but neither the adjective nor the noun in this collocation is alien to political discourse across Europe; east, west or centre. Neither is the concept of ‘national sovereignty’ peripheral to the EU’s being; on the contrary, many would regard it as a core value, alongside ‘shared sovereignty’.

What appears to be fuelling the conflict between Budapest, Berlin and Brussels is the failure to find common ground on migration and relocation quotas. But in this respect, it seems, there is little point in continually re-running the battle over the 2015 migration crisis. Certainly, O’Sullivan is right to suggest that the European Parliament should refrain from slapping Orbán down to discourage other “populists” from resisting its politics of historical inevitability and ever-closer union. Greater flexibility is required on both sides if Hungary is to remain within the EU, and the action of the EP should not be confused with the Commission’s case in the ECJ, conflated as ‘Brussels’ mania. Hungary will need to accept its responsibilities and commitments as a member state if it wishes to remain as such. One of the salient lessons of the ‘Brexit’ debates and negotiations is that no country, big or small, can expect to keep all the benefits of membership without accepting all its obligations.

In the latest issue of Hungarian Review (November 2018), there are a series of articles which come to the defence of the Orbán government in the wake of the Strasbourg vote in favour of adopting the Sargentini Report and threatening sanctions against Hungary. These articles follow many of the lines taken by O’Sullivan and other contributors to earlier editions but are now so indignant that we might well wonder how their authors can persist in supporting Hungary’s continued membership of an association of ‘liberal democratic’ countries whose values they so obviously despise. They are outraged by the EP resolution’s criticism of what it calls the Hungarian government’s “outdated and conservative moral beliefs” such as conventional marriage and policies to strengthen the traditional family. He is, of course, correct in asserting that these are matters for national parliaments by the founding European treaties and that they are the profound moral beliefs of a majority or large plurality of Europeans. 

But the fact remains that, while that ‘majority’ or ‘plurality’ may still hold to these biblically based beliefs, many countries have also decided to recognise same-sex marriage as a secular civil right. This has been because, alongside the ‘majoritarian’ principle, they also accept that the role of liberal democracies is to protect and advance the equal rights of minorities, whether defined by language, ethnicity, nationality or sexual preference. In other words, the measure of democratic assets or deficits of any given country is therefore determined by how well the majority respects the right of minorities. In countries where religious organisations are allowed to register marriages, such as the UK, religious institutions are nevertheless either excluded or exempted from solemnising same-sex marriages. In many other countries, including Hungary and France, the legal registration of marriages can only take place in civic offices in any case. Yet, in 2010, the Hungarian government decided to prescribe such rights by including the ‘Christian’ definition of marriage as a major tenet of its new constitution. Those who have observed Hungary both from within and outside questioned at the time what its motivation was for doing this and why it believed that such a step was necessary. There is also the question as to whether Hungary will accept same-sex marriages legally registered in other EU countries on an equal basis for those seeking a settled status within the country.

O’Sullivan, as editor of Hungarian Review, supports Ryszard Legutko’s article on ‘The European Union’s Democratic Deficit’ as being coolly-reasoned. It has to be said that many observers across Europe would indeed agree that the EU has its own ‘democratic deficit’, which they are determined to address. On finer points, while Legutko is right to point out that violence against Jewish persons and property has been occurring across Europe. But it cannot be denied, as he seeks to do, that racist incident happen here in Hungary too. In the last few years, it has been reported in the mainstream media that rabbis have been spat on in the streets and it certainly the case that armed guards have had to be stationed at the main ‘Reformed’ synagogue in Budapest, not simply to guard against ‘Islamic’ terrorism, we are told, but also against attacks from right-wing extremists.

Legutko also labels the Central European University as a ‘foreign’ university, although it has been operating in the capital for more than twenty-five years. It is now, tragically in the view of many Hungarian academics, being forced to leave for no other reason than that it was originally sponsored by George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. The ‘common rules’ which Legutko accepts have been ‘imposed’ on all universities and colleges relate to the curriculum, limiting academic freedom, and bear no relation to the kinds of administrative regulation which apply in other member states, where there is respect for the freedom of the institutions to offer the courses they themselves determine. Legutko’s other arguments, using terms like ‘outrageous’, ‘ideological crusade’, and ‘leftist crusaders’ are neither, in O’Sullivan’s terms, ‘cool’ nor ‘reasoned’.

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György Schöpflin’s curiously titled article, What If?  is actually a series of rather extreme statements, but there are some valid points for discussion among these. Again, the article is a straightforward attack on “the left” both in Hungary and within the European Parliament. The ‘opposition’ in Hungary is certainly ‘hapless’ and ‘fragmented’, but this does not absolve the Hungarian government from addressing the concerns of the 448 MEPs who voted to adopt the Sargentini report, including many from the European People’s Party to which the FIDESZ-MPP-KDNP alliance still belongs, for the time being at least. Yet Schöpflin simply casts these concerns aside as based on a Manichean view in which the left attributes all virtue to itself and all vice to Fidesz, or to any other political movement that questions the light to the left. Presumably, then, his definition of the ‘left’ includes Conservatives, Centrists and Christian Democrats from across the EU member states, in addition to the Liberal and Social Democratic parties. Apparently, this complete mainstream spectrum has been duped by the Sargentini Report, which he characterises as a dystopic fabrication:

Dystopic because it looked only for the worst (and found it) and fabrication because it ignored all the contrary evidence.

Yet, on the main criticisms of the Report, Schöpflin produces no evidence of his own to refute the ‘allegations’. He simply refers to the findings of the Venice Commission and the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency which have been less critical and more supportive in relation to Hungary’s system of Justice. Fair enough, one might say, but doesn’t this simply give the lie to his view of the EU as a monolithic organisation? Yet his polemic is unrelenting:

The liberal hegemony has increasingly acquired many of the qualities of a secular belief system – unconsciously mimicking Christian antecedents – with a hierarchy of public and private evils. Accusations substitute for evidence, but one can scourge one’s opponents (enemies increasingly) by calling them racist or nativist or xenophobic. … Absolute evil is attributed to the Holocaust, hence Holocaust denial and Holocaust banalisation are treated as irremediably sinful, even criminal in some countries. Clearly, the entire area is so strongly sacralised or tabooised that it is untouchable.

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001The questions surrounding the events of 1944-45 in Europe are not ‘untouchable’. On the contrary, they are unavoidable, as the well-known picture above continues to show. Here, Schöpflin seems to be supporting the current trend in Hungary for redefining the Holocaust, if not denying it. This is part of a government-sponsored project to absolve the Horthy régime of its responsibility for the deportation of some 440,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944, under the direction of Adolf Eichmann and his henchmen, but at the hands of the Hungarian gendarmerie. Thankfully, Botond Gaál’s article on Colonel Koszorús later in this edition of Hungarian Review provides further evidence of this culpability at the time of the Báky Coup in July 1944.

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But there are ‘official’ historians currently engaged in creating a false narrative that the Holocaust in Hungary should be placed in the context of the later Rákósi terror as something which was directed from outside Hungary by foreign powers, and done to Hungarians, rather than something which Hungarians did to each other and in which Admiral Horthy’s Regency régime was directly complicit. This is part of a deliberate attempt at the rehabilitation and restoration of the reputation of the mainly authoritarian governments of the previous quarter century,  a process which is visible in the recent removal and replacement public memorials and monuments.

I have dealt with these issues in preceding articles on this site. Schöpflin then goes on to challenge other ‘taboos’ in ‘the catalogue of evils’ such as colonialism and slavery in order to conclude that:

The pursuit of post-colonial guilt is arguably tied up with the presence of former colonial subjects in the metropole, as an instrument for silencing any voices that might be audacious enough to criticise Third World immigration.

We can only assume here that by using the rather out-dated term ‘Third World’ he is referring to recent inter-regional migration from the Middle East, Africa and the Asian sub-continent. Here, again, is the denial of migration as a fact of life, not something to be criticised, in the way in which much of the propaganda on the subject, especially in Hungary, has tended to demonise migrants and among them, refugees from once prosperous states destroyed by wars sponsored by Europeans and Americans. These issues are not post-colonial, they are post-Cold War, and Hungary played its own (small) part in them, as we have seen. But perhaps what should concern us most here is the rejection, or undermining of universal values and human rights, whether referring to the past or the present. Of course, if Hungary truly wants to continue to head down this path, then it would indeed be logical for it to disassociate itself from all international organisations, including NATO and the UN agencies and organisations. All of these are based on concepts of absolute, regional and global values.

So, what are Schöpflin’s what ifs?? His article refers to two:

  • What if the liberal wave, no more than two-three decades old, has peaked? What if the Third Way of the 1990s is coming to its end and Europe is entering a new era in which left-liberalism will be just one way of doing politics among many? 

‘Liberalism’ in its generic sense, defined by Raymond Williams (1983) among others, is not, as this series of articles have attempted to show,  a ‘wave’ on the pan-European ‘shoreline’. ‘Liberal Democracy’ has been the dominant political system among the nation-states of Europe for the past century and a half. Hungary’s subjugation under a series of authoritarian Empires – Autocratic Austrian, Nazi German and Soviet Russian, as well as under its own twenty-five-year-long Horthy régime (1919-44), has meant that it has only experienced brief ‘tides’ of ‘liberal’ government in those 150 years, all of a conservative-nationalist kind. Most recently, this was defined as ‘civil democracy’ in the 1989 Constitution. What has happened in the last three decades is that the ‘liberal democratic’ hegemony in Europe, whether expressed in its dominant Christian Democrat/ Conservative or Social Democratic parties has been threatened, for good or ill, by more radical populist movements on both the Right and Left. In Hungary, these have been almost exclusively on the Right, because the radical Left has failed to recover from the downfall of state socialism. With the centre-Left parties also in disarray and divided, FIDESZ-MPP has been able to control the political narrative and, having effectively subsumed the KDNP, has been able to dismiss all those to its left as ‘left-liberal’. The term is purely pejorative and propagandist. What if, we might ask, the Populist ‘wave’ of the last thirty years is now past its peak? What is Hungary’s democratic alternative, or are we to expect an indefinite continuance of one-party rule?

Issues of Identity: Nationhood or Nation-Statehood?:

  • What if the accession process has not really delivered on its promises, that of unifying Europe, bringing the West and the East together on fully equal terms? If so, then the resurgence of trust in one’s national identity is more readily understood. … There is nothing in the treaties banning nationhood.

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The Brexit Divisions in Britain are clear: they are generational, national and regional.

We could empathise more easily with this view were it not for Schöpflin’s assumption that ‘Brexit’ was unquestionably fuelled by a certain sense of injured Englishness. His remark is typical of the stereotypical view of Britain which many Hungarians of a certain generation persist in recreating, quite erroneously. Questions of national identity are far more pluralistic and complex in western Europe in general, and especially in the United Kingdom, where two of the nations voted to ‘remain’ and two voted to ‘leave’. Equally, though, the Referendum vote in England was divided between North and South, and within the South between metropolitan and university towns on the one hand and ‘market’ towns on the other. The ‘third England’ of the North, like South Wales, contains many working-class people who feel themselves to be ‘injured’ not so much by a Brussels élite, but by a London one. The Scots, the Welsh, the Northern Irish and the Northern English are all finding their own voice, and deserve to be listened to, whether they voted ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. And Britain is not the only multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nation-state in the western EU, as recent events in Spain have shown. Western Europeans are entirely sensitive to national identities; no more so than the Belgians. But these are not always as synonymous with ‘nation-statehood’ as they are among many of the East-Central nations.

Source:Reuters/László Balogh

Above: The Hungarian Opposition demonstrates on one of the main Danube bridges.

Hungarians with an understanding of their own history will have a clearer understanding of the complexities of multi-ethnic countries, but they frequently display more mono-cultural prejudices towards these issues, based on their more recent experiences as a smaller, land-locked, homogeneous population. They did not create this problem, of course, but the solution to it lies largely in their own hands. A more open attitude towards migrants, whether from Western Europe or from outside the EU might assist in this. Certainly, the younger, less ‘political’ citizens who have lived and work in the ‘West’ often return to Hungary with a more modern understanding and progressive attitude. The irony is, of course, due partly to this outward migration, Hungary is running short of workers, and the government is now, perhaps ironically, making itself unpopular by insisting that the ever-decreasing pool of workers must be prepared to work longer hours in order to satisfy the needs of German multi-nationals.  In this  regard, Schöpflin claims that:

The liberal hegemony was always weaker in Central Europe, supported by maybe ten per cent of voters (on a good day), so that is where the challenge to the hegemony emerged and the alternative was formulated, not least by FIDESZ. … In insisting that liberal free markets generate inequality, FIDESZ issued a warning that the free movement of capital and people had negative consequences for states on the semi-periphery. Equally, by blocking the migratory pressure on Europe in 2015, FIDESZ demonstrated that a small country could exercise agency even in the face of Europe-wide disapproval. 

Source: Népszabadság / Photo Simon Móricz-Sabján

Above: Pro-EU Hungarians show their colours in Budapest.

Such may well be the case, but O’Sullivan tells us that even the ‘insurgent parties’ want to reform the EU rather than to leave or destroy it. Neither does Schöpflin, nor any of the other writers, tell us what we are to replace the ‘liberal hegemony’ in Europe with. Populist political parties seem, at present, to be little more than diverse protest movements and to lack any real ideological cohesion or coherence. They may certainly continue ‘pep up’ our political discourse and make it more accessible within nation-states and across frontiers, but history teaches us (Williams, 1983) that hegemonies can only be overthrown by creating an alternative predominant practice and consciousness. Until that happens, ‘liberal democracy’, with its diversity and versatility, is the only proven way we have of governing ourselves. In a recent article for The Guardian Weekly (30 November 2018), Natalie Nougayréde has observed that Viktor Orbán may not be as secure as he thinks, at least as far as FIDESZ’s relations with the EU. She accepts that he was comfortably re-elected earlier last year, the man who has dubbed himself as the “Christian” champion of “illiberal democracy”. Having come under strong criticism from the European People’s Party, the conservative alliance in the EU that his party belongs to. There is evidence, she claims, that FIDESZ will get kicked out of the mainstream group after the May 2019 European elections. Whether this happens or not, he was very publicly lambasted for his illiberalism at the EPP’s congress in Helsinki in November. Orbán’s image has been further tarnished by the so-called Gruevski Scandal, caused by the decision to grant political asylum to Macedonia’s disgraced former prime minister, criminally convicted for fraud and corruption in his own country. This led to a joke among Hungarian pro-democracy activists that “Orbán no longer seems to have a problem with criminal migrants”.

Some other signs of change across central Europe are worth paying careful attention to. Civil society activists are pushing are pushing back hard, and we should beware of caving into a simplistic narrative about the east of Europe being a homogeneous hotbed of authoritarianism with little effort of put into holding it in check. If this resistance leads to a turn in the political tide in central Europe in 2019, an entirely different picture could emerge on the continent. Nevertheless, the European elections in May 2019 may catch European electorates in a rebellious mood, even in the West. To adopt and adapt Mark Twain’s famous epithet, the rumours of the ‘strange’ death of liberal democracy in central Europe in general, and in Hungary in particular, may well have been greatly exaggerated. If anything, the last two hundred years of Hungarian history have demonstrated its resilience and the fact that, in progressive politics as in history, nothing is inevitable. The children of those who successfully fought for democracy in 1988-89 will have demonstrated that ‘truth’ and ‘decency’ can yet again be victorious. The oft-mentioned east-west gap within the EU would then need to be revisited. Looking at Hungary today, to paraphrase another bard, there appears to be too much protest and not enough practical politics, but Hungary is by no means alone in this. But Central European democrats know that they are in a fight for values, and what failure might cost them. As a consequence, they adapt their methods by reaching out to socially conservative parts of the population. Dissent is alive and well and, as in 1989, in working out its own salvation, the east may also help the west to save itself from the populist tide also currently engulfing it.

referendum-ballot-box[1]

Sources (Parts Four & Five):

Jon Henley, Matthius Rooduijn, Paul Lewis & Natalie Nougayréde (30/11/2018), ‘The New Populism’ in The Guardian Weekly. London: Guardian News & Media Ltd.

John O’Sullivan (ed.) (2018), Hungarian Review, Vol. IX, No. 5 (September) & No. 6 (November). Budapest: János Martonyi/ The Danube Institute.

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

Lobenwein Norbert (2009), a rendszerváltás pillanatai, ’89-09. Budapest: VOLT Produkció

Douglas Murray (2018), The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Raymond Williams (1988), Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture & Society. London: Fontana

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades. London: Hutchinson.

Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States & Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: Department of State Publication (Bureau of Public Affairs).

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Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: For the Fallen – An Appendix of Poetry.   Leave a comment

This is a collection of poems (and pictures) which were published in 2014 (27 July) in The Daily Mirror. 

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Note: Wilfred Wilson Gibson was born in Hexham, Northumberland. Originally a social worker in the East End of London, he became a private on the Western Front. His poems are usually narrative in form even when short. During the war, he was one of the first poets to introduce savage realism into his writing. He had been a friend of Rupert Brooke.

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Note: Brooke’s best-known poem, one of his War Sonnets, was first recited from the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday in 1915. It was then published the next day and quickly became renowned as one of the finest war poems. Later the same month Brooke died from an infected mosquito bite he got a month earlier serving with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. Although serving in the Navy, Brooke had fought on land in the initial campaigns in Belgium. In the picture by teenage German gunner Walter Kleinfeldt, a crucifix survives the shelling while troops lie scattered.

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Note: Probably Owen’s most famous poem, though possibly not his best, Dulce et Decorum Est was written in August 1917, though it may not have been fully edited until October 1917. When he wrote it, he was recovering from shell-shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. The quotation, from the Roman poet Horace, which Owen wishes to brand as a lie, means, It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country. In the poem, he dwells on the horrible details of deaths and terrible physical effects of wounds. Owen sets out to shock civilians with unrelenting details of a man’s death from gas, which was ‘obscene as cancer’:

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Note: In the following poem, Sassoon mimics civilians who try to console wounded soldiers with silly arguments. By ‘the pit’ he is referring to the depth of despair:

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Note: McCrae’s famous poem first appeared anonymously in Punch on 8 December 1915. In it, McCrae imagined how the dead lying beneath the poppies of Flanders would call on future generations to sustain the causes for which they died. He was appointed to take charge of a hospital at Boulogne but died of pneumonia in January 1918 before he could take up his appointment.

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Note: In the picture above, thousands gather for Armistice Day at London’s temporary cenotaph in Whitehall in 1919.

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Note: After she was appointed poet laureate in 2009, Carol Ann Duffy wrote this poem to mark the death of Harry Patch, the last surviving veteran of the Great War.

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Note: Since Kipling had written imperialist poetry before 1914 he might have been expected to write crudely jingoistic poetry to support the war effort; instead he wrote surprisingly bitter poetry, especially after he wrote surprisingly bitter poetry, especially after the loss of his son, a lieutenant in the Irish Guards, killed in action at the Battle of Loos. As an act of remembrance of him, Kipling helped pay for many years for the endowment which made it possible for the Last Post to be sounded every night at the Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres. He died in 1936.

This selection of poems is extracted from The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. http://www.penguin.co.uk

 

Centenary of the End of the Great War: The Armistices of November 1918 and their Aftermath in Central Europe.   Leave a comment

Centrifugal Forces & Rival Nationalisms:

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Historical Perspectives & ‘Historic Hungary’:

The armed hostilities of the First World War formally came to an end with the armistice signed between the Entente and Germany at Compiegne on 11 November 1918. However, fighting did not cease everywhere, certainly not along the borders with Hungary, where the seceding nationalities of the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire were lending weight to their territorial claims through the force of arms, creating the status quo sanctioned by the victors who assembled in Paris to reconstruct the order of Europe and the wider world on 12 January 1919. It was largely the impossibility of tackling this situation that swept away the ‘pacifist democracy’ which took over in Hungary at the end of the war and thwarted the first the country had obtained for a transition to democracy. A variety of reasons have been given by historians (and politicians) for the dissolution of historic Hungary. Whereas some continue to believe firmly that it was a viable unit dismembered by a combination of rival nationalisms within the region of central Europe with the complicity of western great powers, others believe that it was the product of centrifugal forces in Europe as a whole, while acknowledging that the precise way in which the process took place was fundamentally influenced by the contingencies of the war and the peace that  concluded it. Far from being seen as predictable or inevitable at the time, the outcome shocked even those sharpest contemporary critics of the darker aspects of the pre-1914 social and political establishment in Hungary and its policy towards the national minorities.

Lines of demarcation in historic Hungary – Neutral zones (November 1918 – March 1919)

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It was all the more shocking for them because they came largely from the more progressive camp who were well-disposed towards the western liberal democracies, but whose future in Hungary’s political scene was destroyed by the circumstances of peacemaking. The tragedy of the aftermath of the First World War, its armistices and the Paris Peace Treaties, especially – in the case of Hungary – that of Trianon in 1920, was that it contributed towards the survival of reactionary nationalist forces which had steered the country into the abyss of war and all its negative consequences in the first place. President Wilson had ‘decreed’ that the frontiers of post-war Europe would be decided by its people, not its politicians. ‘Self-determination’ was to be the guiding principle; plebiscites would make clear ‘the people’s will’. In Hungary’s case, this was to mean that the new boundaries would be drawn to exclude all but the majority Magyar-peopled areas of the Carpathian basin. Also, the new Hungary soon found itself in the position of having a surplus of wheat which it could market only in a world already overstocked with grain. The collapse in world wheat-prices increased the difficulty in providing funds to buy the timber and other raw materials the country required. Moreover, Budapest had grown to its size as the largest city in central Europe as the capital of a large country which had now been reduced by half and would soon be reduced by two-thirds. Over a third of the Magyar peoples were now living outside the country.

An Assassination on Hallowe’en & The ‘Aster Revolution’ in Hungary:

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On 4 November 1918, Austria-Hungary signed an armistice with Italy in Padua. Four days earlier, on All Hallow’s Eve, 31 October unidentified soldiers broke into the home of the former Hungarian Prime Minister, István Tisza (pictured above in a painting by Gyula Benczúr), and shot him dead. Other assailants were also on their way, it was reported, to assassinate the hated count. For four whole years between 1913 and May 1917, when he was dismissed by Charles IV, he had headed the war cabinet. He was a born party leader who possessed such an effective political personality that he had been able to defend the old order with fundamental force. In 1914, he had opposed the declaration of war, not out of principle but because of his belief that the Monarchy was unprepared. By that time, he had already survived one assassination attempt by an MP carrying a revolver. He was the first victim of a revolutionary wave which followed on naturally from the loss of the war, as it did in Germany. However, it was not just the politicians and the political order and system which was affected by this wave. It led to the extensive loss of life and property throughout Hungarian society. The ragged, bitter soldiers streaming home from the collapsed fronts encountered people sunk in misery at home; nearly every family was mourning someone lost in the war or waiting for a prisoner of war to return. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had won over many of the prisoners, many thousands of whom still remained there, voluntarily fighting alongside the Red Army in the civil war that followed. Strikes and mutinies had been on the agenda throughout 1918 and were now also fuelled by these new converts to Bolshevism.

Even amongst all this domestic turmoil, the military situation looked deceptively good until a few months before the end of the war. Austro-Hungarian armies were still deep in enemy lands, with the war aims apparently accomplished. It was only after the last great German offensive on the Western Front had collapsed in August 1918, and the Entente counter-offensive started there as well as in the Balkans, that the Monarchy’s positions on all fronts became untenable. Commenting on the impending surrender of Bulgaria, Foreign Minister István Burián’s evaluation of the situation before the Common Council of Ministers on 28 September was brief and unequivocal: That is the end of it. On 2 October, the Monarchy solicited the Entente for an armistice and peace negotiations, based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points, only to be disappointed to learn from the reply that, having recognised the Czecho-Slovak  and South Slav claims, Wilson was in no position to negotiate on the basis of granting the ethnic minorities autonomy within an empire whose integrity could no longer be maintained. For a century, that empire had been saved from collapse only by the will of its rulers, the Hapsburgs. It had been dominated by its German and Magyar masters, who had failed to come to terms with the Czechs, Poles, Croats, Slovenes and Romanians living in its peripheries.

By mid-October, all the nationalities had their national councils, which proclaimed their independence, a move which now enjoyed the official sanction of the Entente; on 11 October, the Poles seceded from the Empire. The Hapsburg dynasty had held together a huge territory in Central Europe, centring on the Middle Basin of the Danube, so that certain economic advantages accrued to its millions of inhabitants. There was free trade within that vast territory; a unified railway and river transport system and an outlet to the Adriatic Sea assisted imperial trade and commerce. There was a complementary exchange of the products of the plain and the mountains – grain for timber and materials. This ramshackle empire could not withstand the strain of four years of war. The monarchy was collapsing into chaos by this time as Charles IV made a desperate attempt on 16 October to preserve it by announcing the federalisation of Austria, which was to no avail. At the front, the Italians took bloody revenge on the disintegrating army of a state which was breaking apart, launching an offensive in the Valley of Piave on 23 October which left an indelible mark of horror on a generation of men. Between the 28th and the 31st the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Croats and the Ruthenes also seceded from the Empire.

Within Hungary, the effects of the revolutionary ‘milieu’ were mitigated, to a large extent, by Hungary’s bourgeois revolutionary leader, Count Mihály Károlyi, who as a radical left-wing aristocrat, was soon to distribute his estate among the landless. October 1918 had certainly been a month of dramatic scenes in the Hungarian parliament. In the country, deposed Prime Minister István Tisza was widely held to bear supreme responsibility for all the suffering of the previous four years. He declared:  I agree with … Count Károlyi. We have lost this war. He referred to a speech made on 16 October, the same day that Charles IV had announced the federalisation of Austria, by the leader of the opposition, who had also warned that Hungary might lose the peace as well unless suitable policies were adopted. These ought to have included, in the first place, the appointment of an administration acceptable to the Entente powers as well as to a people whose mood was increasingly revolutionary in order to save the territorial integrity of the country and to prevent it falling into anarchy.

On 23 October, the third cabinet of Prime Minister Sándor Wekerle stepped down and on that night Károlyi organised his Hungarian National Council from members of his own Independence Party, the Bourgeois Radical Party, the Social Democratic Party and various circles of intellectuals from the capital. Its twelve-point proclamation called for the immediate conclusion of a separate peace treaty, the independence of Hungary, far-reaching democratic reforms and reconciliation with the nationalities, without harm to the territorial integrity of the state. The National Council functioned as a counter-government in the following week since, contrary to expectations and common sense, Charles IV hesitated in calling on Károlyi to form a government. He preferred Count János Hadik, a follower of the younger Count Andrássy who was popular among MPs hostile to Károlyi. But Hadik had no party, and could only count on the demoralised military to maintain order.

On 28 October, a mass of protesters marched from Pest to Buda Castle, the Monarchy’s palace in the capital, to demand Károlyi’s appointment from Archduke Joseph, the monarch’s representative. Three of them were shot dead by the police. Strikes and further protests followed in the next two days, with occasional clashes between the newly organised Soldiers’ Council and leftist Socialists on the one hand and government units on the other, while Károlyi and the National Council advised moderation and awaited the outcome, even though on 30 October troops were ordered to gain control of their headquarters at the Hotel Astoria in the centre of Pest. The soldiers refused, most of them deserting, carried away by the enthusiasm of the civilians who swarmed onto the streets, cheering the National Council. They captured police buildings, railway stations and telephone exchanges. The traditional flower for All Souls’ Day, 2nd November (more important in Hungary than All Saints’ Day as a time to place fresh flowers on the graves of departed relatives) replaced the insignia torn off from uniforms and appeared in the button-holes of civilian suits, hence the name Aster Revolution, which succeeded on Hallowe’en with the appointment of Károlyi as Premier. Later that afternoon, just before the new government took its oath, István Tisza was murdered by a group of unknown soldiers in his own home, no doubt a symbolic act.

Hungary’s ‘Bourgeois Revolutionary’ Government of November 1918:

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The new government’s programme was virtually the same as the twelve points published a week earlier, and Károlyi’s cabinet was also recruited from the same forces as the National Council, with members of his own party obtaining most of the seats. The crumbling of the whole edifice of the old Monarchy changed Hungary beyond recognition. Paradoxically, however, the dissolution of the historic Kingdom, one of the greatest shocks the country suffered and survived, also created the opportunity for a new beginning. But whereas the collapse of the dualist system cleared important obstacles from the way to democratic transition, the lack of new forms of government was symptomatic of the belatedness of this development, seriously limiting its scope for action. Between them, the parties of the National Council represented a small minority of the aristocracy and lesser nobility, some of the bourgeoisie, diverse circles of the intelligentsia, skilled workers and the trade unions. Missing were the influential haute bourgeoisie, indeed most of the middle classes. The involvement of their highest strata in the war-related business identified them closely with the old régime, and events in Russia turned them off revolution completely, whatever the label. In addition, the truly generous terms offered to the leaders of the Slav and Romanian national parties might have been snapped up in 1914, but the external situation made them almost impossible to achieve in 1918. The attempt to draw them into the Hungarian National Council failed.

Nevertheless, the internal situation in Hungary still held out the promise of overhauling the ossified social and political institutions which bore some responsibility for the disaster of dissolution. It was hoped that a proper, consistently pursued policy towards the minorities, combined with the good relations Károlyi had developed with the Entente powers might Hungary from the consequences of the secret agreements those powers had concluded with the Slavs and Romanians during the war. The first indications in these respects were rather disappointing: the western allies seemed more ready to satisfy their partners in the region, even at the expense of departing from Wilson’s principles, than to reward the political changes in Hungary, and not even full autonomy could keep the Slovaks and the Romanians within ‘historic Hungary’. Croat claims were considered justified by practically everyone in Hungary, and the Serbs did not even consider negotiating over their demands. Wider international developments soon determined that the potential for internal democratic transformation would not materialise. On 3rd-4th November, an Armistice was signed in Padova (Padua) at Villa Giusti between Italy and what was left of Austria-Hungary and the Dual Monarchy immediately broke up into fragments.

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The Emperor was left alone and without friends in the vast echoing corridors of the Palace of Schönbrunn. Following the armistice with Italy, the empire took only a week to unravel. Charles IV was forced to abdicate, and the former territories fell apart into seven divisions, with both Austria and Hungary being reduced to the status of minor states. Worse was to follow for Hungary, as the terms of the armistice signed at Padova were not accepted by the commander of the French forces in the Balkans, General d’Esperey, and his forces crossed the Sava into Hungarian territory. Károlyi, hoping that the occupation would only be a temporary measure, was forced to sign, on 13 November in Belgrade, an armistice requiring the withdrawal of the Hungarian army beyond the Drava-Maros line, its severe reduction and the right to free passage for Entente troops across Hungary. What was held by many people to be the failure of the Károlyi government in not averting the greatest national humiliation Hungary had faced since the Ottoman invasion nearly four centuries earlier could do otherwise but prejudice its chances to cope with its domestic difficulties. It undermined the confidence which had previously built up in the ability of the new government to maintain order at home, the tasks it had to cope with were immense.

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Above & below: The election of Mihály Károlyi as President of the Republic on 16 November 1918 and the Proclamation of the Republic. He was ‘leader of the nation’ during the transitional period after the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and was inaugurated as President in January 1919.

In the initial hope that the new government would be able to secure Hungary’s old borders as well as law, order and property, the old élite accepted, following the abdication of Charles IV, the dissolution of parliament, the investing of the National Council with provisional legislative authority, and the proclamation of the republic on 16 November. They were also, for a short while, impressed by the relatively little violence which had attended the revolution, especially in the urban centres. But Károlyi had received his very limited power from the Habsburgs, and though elected as President of the Republic on 16 November (though he was not inaugurated until January 1919), his gradual shift to the left in order to enable a democratic, constitutional evolution to take place alienated the ‘old guard’. He embarked upon the social and political reforms announced in his programme, which were badly needed in view of the explosive atmosphere in the country. But he soon proved himself too weak for the post of trusteeship in bankruptcy that he had to fill as head of the nation.

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The simultaneous negotiations of the Minister for Minorities, Oszkár Jászi, with the Romanian leaders at Arad, were also of no avail. On 20 November, the Romanians seceded and by the end of the month, their army had advanced to the demarcation line, and even beyond that, as far as Kolozsvár after the Romanians of Transylvania proclaimed their union with the Kingdom of Romania at a meeting in Gyulafehérvár on 1 December. Then the provisional assembly in Vienna also declared that Austria was an independent state. Although the Slovak leader was inclined to accept autonomy as a provisional solution until the peace treaty was signed, the Czechs would not, and fighting broke out along the Slovak border. The Hungarians received a memorandum from the Entente requiring them to withdraw beyond a line which later became the border between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The Ruthenians were the only nationality who, as the unification of all Ukrainian land seemed unlikely at the time, accepted the autonomy offered to them. By the time the Paris peace conference convened on 12 January 1919, Hungary had already lost more than half of the territory and population it had comprised before the war broke out.

Jászi’s idea of the Danubian United States, which he had detailed extensively in a book, was to remain the stuff of dreams. The Károlyi government has been harshly judged and blamed ever since for not resisting, in particular, the ‘land-grabbing’ Romanians, but the armed forces at its disposal would hardly have been a match for the hostile forces ranged against them, backed by the French. More importantly, its legitimacy was based on its supposedly good relations with the Entente powers, so it felt it could ill afford to discard ‘Wilsonianism’, even when they did. The contemporary maps below illustrate the areas, ‘races’, population and economic resources of the partitioned empire. A comparative study of the four sketch-maps reveals the different characteristics of these divisions.

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As winter of 1918-19 set in, the economic blockade by the western Allies was still in force, trading ties with Austria were seriously disrupted, and territories of crucial economic importance in the north, east and south of Hungary were under occupation, leading to shortages of raw materials, fuel which caused chaos in production. Additionally, the most fundamental means of subsistence were unavailable to millions in a country inundated by demobilised soldiers, the continuing stream of returning prisoners of war, and refugees from beyond the demarcation lines. Urban dwellers suspected landowners and smallholding peasants of hoarding grain and holding back deliveries of other agricultural produce; many were leaving their land uncultivated because of impending land reform, which the rural proletariat urged on the government ever more impatiently. There was probably no political force in Hungary at this turbulent time that would have been able to satisfy all of these competing interests and expectations; Károlyi and the democratic politicians around him, whose undoubtedly considerable talents were suited to relatively peaceful and stable conditions but not to national emergencies, were certainly unable to provide such a forceful administration. Even had he not been assassinated, it is unlikely that István Tisza could have done better.

There were already, waiting in the wings on both the left and the right, those who were willing to provide a more authoritarian administration. On the radical Right, there were groups such as the Hungarian National Defence Association, led by Gyula Gömbös and the Association of Awakening Hungarians who impatiently urged the armed defence of the country from November 1918 on. They had their strongest base among the many thousands of demobilised officers and dismissed public servants, many of the latter being refugees from the occupied territories of historic Hungary. In their view, the dissolution of the country was largely the responsibility of the enervated conservative liberalism of the dualist period, which they proposed to transcend by authoritarian government and measures aimed at the redistribution of property in favour of the Christian provincial middle classes at the expense of the, ‘predominantly Jewish’, metropolitan bourgeoisie.

But for the time being the streets belonged more to the political Left. Appeals to workers and soldiers from moderate Social Democratic ministers to patience and order seemed to alienate the disaffected masses. Their new heroes were the Communists, organised as a party on 24 November 1918 by Béla Kun, a former journalist and trade union activist recently returned from captivity in Russia. Like many other former prisoners of war, Kun became convinced of the superiority of the system of Soviets on the Russian model to that of parliamentary democracy, and communist propaganda also promised international stability arising from the fraternity of Soviet republics whose triumph throughout Europe the Communists saw as inevitable. Within a few weeks of the party’s formation, this attractive utopia and its accompanying populist demagogy earned it a membership of around forty thousand, and several times as many supporters whom they could mobilise, mainly among the urban proletariat and the young intelligentsia susceptible to revolutionary romanticism.

Blunders or Back-Stabbing? – The Collapse of Germany:

Reflecting with the benefit of hindsight, and with greater meaning, in his War Memoirs of 1933, Lloyd George admitted that there had been little cause for the victory celebrations in western Europe:

… It is true that the World War ended, as I still believe, in a victory for Right. But it was won not on the merits of the case, but on a balance of resources and blunders. The reserves of manpower, of material and of money at the command of the victorious Powers were overwhelmingly greater than those possessed by the vanquished. They were thus better able to maintain a prolonged struggle. Both sides blundered badly, but the mistakes committed by the Central Powers were more fatal, inasmuch as they did not possess the necessary resources to recover from their errors of judgement. … The Allied mistake prolonged the War. The German mistake lost them the War.

For their part, in the years following the end of the war many Germans, especially those on the right, came to blame socialists and Jews for ‘stabbing in the back’ the military and, by extension, the Fatherland, and so losing the war. The power and resolve of the Allied offensives and the blunders and exhaustion of the German Army were discounted. The events of the autumn of 1918 were to become shrouded in myth and lies. Many Germans convinced themselves that they had been tricked into signing the armistice by the Allies and that they could have fought on and would certainly have done so had they known of the harshness of the treaty that was to be offered them in 1919. A widespread belief developed in the army that Germany had indeed been stabbed in the back by revolutionaries and strikers. Jews were said to have played a major part in this, a view held by the Kaiser himself, and of course, subsequently propagated by Hitler and the Nazis. It was convenient for many, not least those in the military who had lost their nerve in 1918, to blame the defeat on a nebulous conspiracy of ‘reds’, foreigners and politicians, those who were later popularly described as the November Criminals.

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The truth was that by the end of September 1918, Germany’s military leaders realised that they faced defeat and sought a way to end the war.  They paved the way for the democratisation of the country by handing over power to civilian ministers. Ludendorff told the political leaders that an armistice was imperative, and Prince Max von Baden was appointed Chancellor to use his international reputation for moderation in negotiations. On 3 October he requested the US President to take in hand the restoration of peace but in the exchange of notes that followed it was clear that the Allies demanded little short of unconditional surrender. Ludendorff then changed his mind and wished to fight on, but growing popular unrest showed that the German people were in no mood for this, and neither was the new Government. Short of proper clothing and fuel, weakened by semi-starvation and racked by the influenza epidemic which killed 1,722 people on one day (15 October) in Berlin, they demanded peace and turned on the leaders who had promised them victory and brought defeat. Ludendorff was dismissed and steps were taken to transfer real power to the Reichstag, since Wilson had, in any case, refused to enter into negotiations with “monarchical autocrats”.

By the end of October, a civil war was threatening because the Kaiser was refusing to abdicate, despite the relentless pressure being put upon him. He left Berlin on the 29th for the army headquarters at Spa,  where Hindenburg told him that the army would not support him against the people. On the same day mutiny broke out in the navy, the sailors refusing the order to put to sea. By 4 November the mutiny was general, with Kiel falling into the hands of the mutineers. On the same day, the Austro-Hungarian Armistice with Italy exposed Bavaria to attack. A few days later the mutineers had occupied the main cities of north-west Germany, and insurrection had also broken out in Munich. On 7 November, the German civilian delegates passed through the Allied lines to receive the Armistice terms drawn up by the Allied commanders. On 9 November, revolutionaries occupied the streets of Berlin. Friedrich Ebert, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was appointed Chancellor and a republic was declared from the steps of the Reichstag. The armistice terms imposed by the Allies on 11 November were severe and left Germany prostrate. It surrendered its guns and fleet and withdrew its armies from conquered territories. The German Government accepted the terms because the Allies made a solemn promise that the principles which President Wilson had set out in his Fourteen Points should form the basis of the peace settlement which was to follow. By the end of November 1918, Germany had been transformed into a democratic republic, led by the largest political movement in Germany, the Social Democratic Party.

Certainly, the First World War had created the conditions that shaped the later development and ambitions of Hitler’s ‘Reich’. The conflict generated a great deal of physical hardship on the home front with severe shortages of food and steadily deteriorating social conditions. By the end of the war, four years of privation had created a widespread hostility which erupted at the end of the war in a wave of revolutionary violence. Organised labour did better than other groups because of shortages of men for the arms factories, but this exacerbated tensions between and within classes. Many associated the new republic with national humiliation and the downfall of the monarchy. Neither the traditional social forces who lost out in 1918 nor the forces of the populist-nationalist right liked the new government, which they identified with the triumph of communism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. The political transition in 1918-19 created a sharp polarisation in German society which existed down to 1933, but it was not responsible for the military blunders which had led to Germany’s defeat, nor was it responsible for the opening of negotiations leading to an armistice. The military leadership under Ludendorff had already effectively surrendered, allowing the Allies to dictate terms.

The First World War also ended Germany’s long period of economic and trade growth and her pretensions to great power status. German defeat in 1918 left the economy with a war debt far beyond anything the government could afford to repay. This was before the victorious allies seized German economic resources and presented Germany with a bill for 132 billion gold marks as the final schedule of reparation payment, which it would take until 2010 for them to finally clear. Most importantly, the ‘Coupon Election’ was to weaken the authority of Britain in the upcoming Paris Peace Conference in such a way as to undermine Lloyd George’s instinct to treat Germany as an important trading partner which needed to be able to rebuild its economy. The British delegation alone among the European victors could exercise a moderating and healing influence, both from the authority which the War had given her and from her detachment from old European jealousies. But the Prime Minister would go to these councils bound by the extravagant election pledges he had made in 1918 in which he had promised to demand penalties from ‘the enemy’; whatever words of conciliation he might speak would be obscured by ugly echoes of the election campaign – his mandate was to ‘Make Germany Pay’.

This should have been the moment, then, at the end of 1918, when the conditions which had produced the bloody battles, blunders, and massacres of 1914-18 had to be finally removed, and for good. Europe could not simply be left to blunder out of the mud and blood as it had blundered in, in H. G. Wells’ phrase. Preposterous empires and monarchs, as well as tribal churches and territories,  had to be done away with. Instead, there would be created a League of Free Nations along the lines proposed by Wilson in his Fourteen Points which were to form the basis for the Paris peace negotiations which began the following January. This virtual international government, informed by science and motivated by the disinterested guardianship of the fate of common humanity, must inaugurate a new history. Otherwise, the sacrifice of millions would have been perfectly futile, the bad joke of the grinning skull. But the idealists who advocated this new form of peacebuilding were to be bitterly disappointed by the vindictiveness of the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed the blame and cost of the war on Germany, and the injustice of the Treaty of Trianon, which dismembered central Europe in the name of the ideal of ‘self-determination’, while in reality rewarding land-grabbing nationalists and punishing the Hungarians for joining a war they did not start.

Sources:

István Lázár (1992), An Illustrated History of Hungary. Budapest: Corvina.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson, J. A. Morris (1936), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-1935. London: Harrap.

 

‘Celebrity’ Britain: The Arrival of ‘New Labour’ & Diana’s Demise, 1994-99.   Leave a comment

The Advent of Brown & Blair:

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Tony Blair was far more of an establishment figure than his mentor John Smith, or his great political ‘friend’ and future rival, Gordon Brown. He was the son of a Tory lawyer and went to preparatory school in Durham and then to a fee-paying boarding school in Edinburgh. He then went ‘up’ to Oxford, becoming a barrister and joining the Labour Party before he fell in love with a young Liverpudlian socialist called Cherie Booth, who sharpened his left-wing credentials before he became an MP at the 1983 General Election, winning a safe Labour seat in the north-east of England. Once in the Commons, he quickly fell in with Gordon Brown, another new MP, who was much that Blair was not. He was a tribal Labour Party man from a family which was strongly political and had rarely glimpsed the English Establishment, even its middle ranks from which Blair sprung. Brown had been Scotland’s best-known student politician and player in Scottish Labour politics from the age of twenty-three, followed by a stint in television. Yet the two men had their Christian beliefs in common, Anglo-Catholic in Blair’s case and Presbyterian in Brown’s. Most importantly, they were both deeply impatient with the state of the Labour Party. For seven or eight years they had seemed inseparable, sharing a small office together. Brown tutored Blair in some of the darker arts of politics while Blair explained the thinking of the English metropolitan and suburban middle classes to Brown. Together they made friends with Westminster journalists, both maturing as performers in the Commons, and together they worked their way up the ranks of the shadow cabinet.

After the 1992 defeat, Blair made a bleak public judgement about why Labour had lost so badly. The reason was simple: Labour has not been trusted to fulfil the aspirations of the majority of people in a modern world. As shadow home secretary he began to put that right, promising to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. He was determined to return his party to the common-sense values of Christian Socialism, also influenced by the mixture of socially conservative and economically liberal messages used by Bill Clinton and his ‘New Democrats’. So too was Gordon Brown but as shadow chancellor, his job was to demolish the cherished spending plans of his colleagues. Also, his support for the ERM made him ineffective when Major and Lamont suffered their great defeat. By 1994, the Brown-Blair relationship was less strong than it had been, but they visited the States together to learn the new political style of the Democrats which, to the advantage of Blair, relied heavily on charismatic leadership. Back home, Blair pushed Smith to reform the party rulebook, falling out badly with him in the process. Media commentators began to tip Blair as the next leader, and slowly but surely, the Brown-Blair relationship was turning into a Blair-Brown one.

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In the days following the sudden death of the Labour leader, John Smith (pictured right), Tony Blair decided almost immediately to run as his replacement, while Gordon Brown hesitated, perhaps more grief-stricken. But he had assumed he would eventually inherit the leadership, and was aghast when he heard of Blair’s early declaration. There were at least ten face-to-face confrontations between the two men, in London and Edinburgh. In the opinion polls, Blair was shown to be more popular, and he had the backing of more MPs as well as that of the press. Crucial to Blair’s case was his use of received pronunciation which, after Neil Kinnock and John Smith’s heavily accented English, would reassure those more prejudiced parts of the Kingdom which were the main battlegrounds for Labour, and in which Celtic tones were not perhaps as appreciated as they might be nowadays. They were alright when heard from actors and BBC presenters, but they made politicians seem more ‘peripheral’. Brown had a deeper knowledge of the Labour movement and broader support among the trade unions, however, and had also thought through his policy agenda for change in greater detail. Given the vagaries of Labour’s electoral college system, it is impossible to judge, even now, what might have happened had the ‘young English hart’ locked horns with the ‘tough Scottish stag’, but they agreed at the time that it would be disastrous for them to fight each other as two ‘modernisers’ since Brown would have to attack Blair from the left and the unions would then demand their tribute from him if he won.

So the two men came to a deal, culminating in a dinner at a ‘chic’ Islington restaurant. The outcome is still a matter of some dispute, but we know that Blair acknowledged that Brown, as Chancellor in a Labour government, would have complete authority over a wide range of policy which he would direct through the Treasury, including the ‘social justice’ agenda. But it is unlikely that he would have been so arrogant as to agree, as some have suggested, that he would hand over the premiership to Brown after seven years. After all, at that time Labour was already still three years away from winning its first term and not even the sharpest crystal ball could have projected the second term at that juncture. The most significant result of their dinner-table deal was that, following all the battles between Tory premiers and chancellors of the then recent and current Conservative governments, Brown’s Treasury would become a bastion for British home affairs, while Blair was left to concentrate on foreign policy largely unimpeded, with all the tragic consequences with which we are now familiar, with the benefit of the hindsight of the last twenty years.

Team Tony & ‘Blair’s Babes’:

When it arrived, the 1997 General Election demonstrated just what a stunningly efficient and effective election-winning team Tony Blair led, comprising those deadly masters of spin, Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. ‘New Labour’ as it was now officially known, won 419 seats, the largest number ever for the party and comparable only with the seats won by the National Government of 1935. Its Commons majority was also a modern record, 179 seats, and thirty-three more than Attlee’s landslide majority of 1945. The swing of ten per cent from the Conservatives was another post-war record, roughly double that which the 1979 Thatcher victory had produced in the opposite direction. But the turn-out was very low, at seventy-one per cent the lowest since 1935. Labour had won a famous victory but nothing like as many actual votes as John Major had won five years earlier. But Blair’s party also won heavily across the south and in London, in parts of Britain where it had previously been unable to reach or represent in recent times.

As the sun came up on a jubilant, celebrating Labour Party returning to power after an eighteen-year absence, there was a great deal of Bohemian rhapsodizing about a new dawn for Britain. Alistair Campbell had assembled crowds of party workers and supporters to stand along Downing Street waving union flags as the Blairs strode up to claim their victory spoils. Briefly, at least, it appeared that the whole country had turned out to cheer the champions. In deepest, Lib-Con ‘marginal’ Somerset, many of us had been up all night, secretly sipping our Cava in front of the incredible scenes unfolding before our disbelieving eyes, and when the results came in from Basildon and Birmingham Edgbaston (my first constituency at the age of eighteen when it had already been a safe seat for Tory matron Jill Knight for at least a decade), we were sure that this would indeed be a landslide victory, even if we had had to vote for the Liberal Democrats in the West Country just to make sure that there was no way back for the Tories. The victory was due to a small group of self-styled modernisers who had seized the Labour Party and made it a party of the ‘left and centre-left’, at least for the time being, though by the end of the following thirteen years, and after two more elections, they had taken it further to the right than anyone expected on that balmy early summer morning; there was no room for cynicism amid all the euphoria. Labour was rejuvenated, and that was all that mattered.

A record number of women were elected to Parliament, 119, of whom 101 were Labour MPs, the so-called ‘Blair’s babes’. Despite becoming one of the first countries in the world to have a female prime minister, in 1987 there were just 6.3% of women MPs in government in the UK, compared with 10% in Germany and about a third in Norway and Sweden. Only France came below the UK with 5.7%.

Official portrait of Dame Margaret Hodge crop 2.jpgBefore the large group of women MPs joined her in 1997, Margaret Hodge (pictured below, c.1992, and right, in c. 2015) had already become MP for Barking in a 1994 by-election, following the death of Labour MP Jo Richardson. While still a new MP, Hodge endorsed the candidature of Tony Blair, a former Islington neighbour, for the Labour Party leadership, and was appointed Junior Minister for Disabled People in 1998. Before entering the Commons, she had been Leader of Islington Council and had not been short of invitations from constituencies to stand in the 1992 General Election. Given that she is now referred to as a ‘veteran MP’ it is therefore interesting to note that she had turned these offers down, citing her family commitments:

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“It’s been a hard decision; the next logical step is from local to national politics and I would love to be part of a Labour government influencing change. But it’s simply inconsistent with family life, and I have four children who mean a lot to me. 

“It does make me angry that the only way up the political ladder is to work at it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That’s not just inappropriate for a woman who has to look after children or relatives, it’s inappropriate for any normal person.

“The way Parliament functions doesn’t attract me very much. MPs can seem terribly self-obsessed, more interested in their latest media appearance than in creating change.” 

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Patricia Hewitt (pictured above, in 1992, and more recently, right) had first begun looking for a seat in the 1970s when she was general secretary of the National Council of Civil Liberties (NCCL). She later commented that… looking for a seat takes an enormous amount of time, and money, too if you’re travelling a lot. Eventually, she was chosen to fight Leicester East in 1983, a contest which she lost by only nine hundred votes to the Conservative in what was then a relatively safe Tory seat. She later recalled driving up to Leicester on two evenings every week:

“I was planning to have a child after the elections – looking back I don’t know I imagined I was going to cope if Labour had won the seat… Even without children, I was leading such a pressured life – and my partner was doing the same as a Labour councillor – that it did put a strain on our relationship.”

She then became Neil Kinnock’s press and broadcasting secretary. In this role, she was a key player in the first stages of the ‘modernisation’ of the Labour Party, and along with Clive Hollick, helped set up the Institute for Public Policy Research and was its deputy director 1989–1994. By the time of the 1992 General Election she had two small children, so she decided not to look for a seat. Following Labour’s defeat in 1992, Hewitt was asked by the new Labour Leader, John Smith, to help establish the Commission on Social Justice, of which she became deputy chair. She then became head of research with Andersen Consulting, remaining in the post during the period 1994–1997. Hewitt was finally elected to Parliament to the House of Commons as the first female MP for Leicester West at the 1997 General Election, following the retirement of Greville Janner. She was elected with a majority of 12,864 and remained the constituency MP until stepping down in 2010.

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Mary Kaldor (pictured right in the 1980s, and below in 2000), by contrast, never became an MP, one of the ‘loves’ Labour lost. A British academic, currently Professor of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, where she is also the Director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, she was the daughter of the economist Nicholas Kaldor, an exiled Hungarian economist who became an adviser to Harold Wilson in the 1960s. In the nineties, she was a senior research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit of Sussex, and former foreign policy adviser to the Labour Party. She was shortlisted for Hackney and Dulwich in 1981, attending masses of meetings, many of which were boring at which she was endlessly having to be nice to people. Her youngest child was two years old at the time and was therefore ambivalent about the idea of becoming an MP:

“I was very well-equipped with baby minders and a nice understanding husband, but what on earth is the point of having children if you’re not going to see them?

“Building links with eastern Europe through the peace movement was more exciting than anything I could ever have done as an MP … (which seemed) entirely about competitiveness and being in the limelight, giving you no time to think honestly about your political views.”

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In 1999, Kaldor supported international military intervention over Kosovo on humanitarian grounds, calling for NATO ground forces to follow aerial bombardment in an article for The Guardian. I have written about the war in Kosovo in a separate article in this series. Significantly, however, by the end of the next decade Kaldor lost faith in the principle and practice of humanitarian intervention, telling the same paper:

The international community makes a terrible mess wherever it goes…

It is hard to find a single example of humanitarian intervention during the 1990s that can be unequivocally declared a success. Especially after Kosovo, the debate about whether human rights can be enforced through military means is ever more intense.

Moreover, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have been justified in humanitarian terms, have further called into question the case for intervention.

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Blair needed the support and encouragement of admirers and friends who would coax and goad him. There was Mandelson, the brilliant but temperamental former media boss, who had now become an MP. Although adored by Blair, he was so mistrusted by other members of the team that Blair’s inner circle gave him the codename ‘Bobby’ (as in Bobby Kennedy). Alistair Campbell, Blair’s press officer and attack-dog is pictured above, in a characteristic ‘pose’. A former journalist and natural propagandist, he had helped orchestrate the campaign of mockery against Major. Then there was Anji Hunter, the contralto charmer who had known Blair as a young rock-singer and was his best hotline to middle England. Derry Irvine was a brilliant Highlands lawyer who had first found a place in his chambers for Blair and Booth. He advised on constitutional change and became Lord Chancellor in due course. These people, with the Brown team working in parallel, formed the inner core. The young David Miliband, son of a well-known Marxist philosopher, provided research support. Among the MPs who were initially close were Marjorie ‘Mo’ Mowlem and Jack Straw, but the most striking aspect about ‘Tony’s team’ was how few elected politicians it included.

The small group of people who put together the New Labour ‘project’ wanted to find a way of governing which helped the worse off, particularly by giving them better chances in education and to find jobs, while not alienating the mass of middle-class voters. They were extraordinarily worried by the press and media, bruised by what had happened to Kinnock, whom they had all worked with, and ruthlessly focused on winning over anyone who could be won. But they were ignorant of what governing would be like. They were able to take power at a golden moment when it would have been possible to fulfil all the pledges they had made. Blair had the wind at his back as the Conservatives would pose no serious threat to him for many years to come. Far from inheriting a weak or crisis-ridden economy, he was actually taking over at the best possible time when the country was recovering strongly but had not yet quite noticed that this was the case. Blair had won by being ruthless, and never forgot it, but he also seemed not to realise quite what an opportunity ‘providence’ had handed him.

Cool Britannia and the Celebrity Princess:

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Above: a page from a recent school text.

Tony Blair arrived in power in a country with a revived fashion for celebrity, offering a few politicians new opportunities but at a high cost. It was not until 1988 that the full shape of modern celebrity culture had become apparent. That year had seen the publication of the truly modern glossy glamour magazines when Hello! was launched. Its successful formula was soon copied by OK! from 1993 and many other magazines soon followed suit, to the point where the yards of coloured ‘glossies’ filled the newsagents’ shelves in every town and village in the country. Celebrities were paid handsomely for being interviewed and photographed in return for coverage which was always fawningly respectful and never hostile. The rich and famous, no matter how flawed in real life, were able to shun the mean-minded sniping of the ‘gutter press’, the tabloid newspapers. In the real world, the sunny, airbrushed world of Hello! was inevitably followed by divorces, drunken rows, accidents and ordinary scandals. But people were happy to read good news about these beautiful people even if they knew that there was more to their personalities and relationships than met the eye. In the same year that Hello! went into publication, ITV also launched its the most successful of the daytime television shows, This Morning, hosted from Liverpool by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, providing television’s celebrity breakthrough moment.

This celebrity fantasy world, which continued to open up in all directions throughout the nineties, served to re-emphasise to alert politicians, broadcasting executives and advertisers the considerable power of optimism. The mainstream media in the nineties was giving the British an unending stream of bleakness and disaster, so millions tuned in and turned over to celebrity. That they did so in huge numbers did not mean that they thought that celebrities had universally happy lives. And in the eighties and nineties, no celebrity gleamed more brightly than the beautiful yet troubled Princess Diana. For fifteen years she was an ever-present presence: as an aristocratic girl, whose childhood had been blighted by her parents’ divorce, her fairytale marriage in 1981 found her pledging her life to a much older man who shared few of her interests and did not even seem to be truly in love with her. Just as the monarchy had gained from its marriages, especially the filmed-for-television romance, engagement and wedding of Charles and Diana, the latter attracting a worldwide audience of at least eight hundred million, so it lost commensurately from the failure of those unions.

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Above: Hello! looks back on the 1981 Royal Wedding from that of 2011.

Diana quickly learned how to work the crowds and to seduce the cameras like Marilyn Monroe. By the end of the eighties, she had become a living fashion icon. Her eating disorder, bulimia, was one suffered by a growing number of young women and teenage girls from less privileged homes. When AIDS was in the news, she hugged its victims to show that it was safe, and she went on to campaign for a ban on the use of land-mines. The slow disintegration of this marriage transfixed Britain, as Diana moved from a china-doll debutante to painfully thin young mother, to an increasingly charismatic and confident public figure, surprising her husband who had always assumed she would be in his shadow. After the birth of their second son Harry in 1987, Charles and Diana’s marriage was visibly failing.

When rumours spread of her affairs, they no longer had the moral impact that they might have had in previous decades. By the nineties, Britain was now a divorce-prone country, in which ‘what’s best for the kids’ and ‘I deserve to be happy’ were phrases which were regularly heard in suburban kitchen-diners. Diana was not simply a pretty woman married to a king-in-waiting but someone people felt, largely erroneously, would understand them. There was an obsessive aspect to the admiration of her, something that the Royal Family had not seen before, and its leading members found it very uncomfortable and even, at times, alarming. They were being challenged as living symbols of Britain’s ‘family values’ and found wanting, just as John Major’s government would also be hoisted by its own petard as its ‘Back to Basics’ campaign was overwhelmed by an avalanche of sexual and financial scandals.

By the mid-1990s, the monarchy was looking shaky, perhaps even mortal. The strain of being at once a ceremonial and a familial institution was proving a bit much. The year 1992, referred to as the Queen as her ‘annus horribilis’ in her Christmas speech, first saw the separation of the other royal couple, Andrew and Sarah, followed by a major fire at Windsor Castle in November. The journalist Andrew Morton claimed to tell Diana’s True Story in a book which described suicide attempts, blazing rows, her bulimia and her growing certainty that Prince Charles had resumed an affair with his old love Camilla Parker-Bowles, something he later confirmed in a television interview with Jonathan Dimbleby. In December, John Major announced the separation of Charles and Diana to the House of Commons. There was a further blow to the Royal Family’s prestige in 1994 when the royal yacht Britannia, the floating emblem of the monarch’s global presence, was decommissioned.

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 Above: Prince William with his mother, c. 1994.

Then came the revelatory 1995 interview on BBC TV’s Panorama programme between Diana and Martin Bashir. Breaking every taboo left in Royal circles, she freely discussed the breakup of her marriage, claiming that there were ‘three of us’ in it, attacked the Windsors for their cruelty and promised to be ‘a queen of people’s hearts’. Finally divorced in 1996, she continued her charity work around the world and began a relationship with Dodi al-Fayed, the son of the owner of Harrods, Mohammed al-Fayed. To many in the establishment, she was a selfish, unhinged woman who was endangering the monarchy. To many millions more, however, she was more valuable than the formal monarchy, her readiness to share her pain in public making her even more fashionable. She was followed all around the world, her face and name selling many papers and magazines. By the late summer of 1997, Britain had two super-celebrities, Tony Blair and Princess Diana.

It was therefore grimly fitting that Tony Blair’s most resonant words as Prime Minister which brought him to the height of his popularity came on the morning when Diana was killed in a car-crash, together with Dodi, in a Paris underpass. Blair was woken from a deep sleep at his constituency home, first to be told about the accident, and then to be told that Diana had died. Deeply shocked and worried about what his proper role should be, Blair spoke first to Campbell and then to the Queen, who told him that neither she nor any other senior member of the Royal Family would be making a statement. He decided, therefore, that he had to say something. Later that Sunday morning, standing in front of his local parish church, he spoke words which were transmitted live around the world:

“I feel, like everyone else in this country today, utterly devastated. Our thoughts and prayers are with Princess Diana’s family, in particular her two sons, her two boys – our hearts go out to them. We are today a nation in a state of shock…

“Her own life was often sadly touched the lives of so many others in Britain and throughout the world with joy and with comfort. How many times shall we remember her in how many different ways, with the sick, the dying, with children, with the needy? With just a look or a gesture that spoke so much more than words, she would reveal to all of us the depth of her compassion and her humanity.

“People everywhere, not just here in Britain, kept faith with Princess Diana. They liked her, they loved her, they regarded her as one of the people. She was – the People’s Princess and that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and our memories for ever.”

Although these words seem, more than twenty years on, to be reminiscent of past tributes paid to religious leaders, at the time they were much welcomed and assented to. They were the sentiments of one natural charismatic public figure to another. Blair regarded himself as the people’s Prime Minister, leading the people’s party, beyond left and right, beyond faction or ideology, with a direct line to the people’s instincts. After his impromptu eulogy, his approval rating rose to over ninety per cent, a figure not normally witnessed in democracies. Blair and Campbell then paid their greatest service to the ancient institution of the monarchy itself. The Queen, still angry and upset about Diana’s conduct and concerned for the welfare of her grandchildren, wanted a quiet funeral and to remain at Balmoral, away from the scenes of public mourning in London. However, this was potentially disastrous for her public image. There was a strange mood in the country deriving from Diana’s charisma, which Blair had referenced in his words at Trimdon. If those words had seemed to suggest that Diana was a saint, a sub-religious hysteria responded to the thought. People queued to sign a book of condolence at St James’ Palace, rather than signing it online on the website of the Prince of Wales. Those queuing even reported supernatural appearances of the dead Princess’ image. By contrast, the lack of any act of public mourning by the Windsors and the suggestion of a quiet funeral seemed to confirm Diana’s television criticisms of the Royal Family as being cold if not cruel towards her.

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In particular, the Queen was criticised for following protocol, which prohibited the flying of flags at Buckingham Palace when she was not in residence, rather than fulfilling the deep need of a grief-stricken public to see the Union flag flying there at half-mast. According to another protocol, flags were only flown at half-mast on the deaths of the monarch or their immediate blood relatives. But the crown lives or dies by such symbolic moments, and the Queen relented. Also, with Prince Charles’ full agreement, Blair and his aides put pressure on the Palace first into accepting that there would have to be a huge public funeral so that the public could express their grief, and second into accepting that the Queen should return to London. She did, just in time to quieten the genuine and growing anger about her perceived attitude towards Diana. This was a generational problem as well as a class one. The Queen had been brought up in a land of buttoned lips, stoicism and private grieving. She now reigned over a country which expected and almost required exhibitionism. For some years, the deaths of children, or the scenes of fatal accidents had been marked by little shrines of cellophane-wrapped flowers, soft toys and cards. In the run-up to Diana’s funeral parts of central London seemed almost Mediterranean in their public grieving. There were vast mounds of flowers, people sleeping out, holding up placards and weeping in the streets, strangers hugging each other.

The immense outpouring of public emotion in the weeks that followed seemed both to overwhelm and distinguish itself from the more traditional devotion to the Queen herself and to her immediate family. The crisis was rescued by a live, televised speech she made from the Palace which was striking in its informality and obviously sincere expression of personal sorrow. As Simon Schama has put it,

The tidal wave of feeling that swept over the country testified to the sustained need of the public to come together in a recognizable community of sentiment, and to do so as the people of a democratic monarchy.

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The funeral itself was like no other before, bringing the capital to a standstill. In Westminster Abbey, campaigners stood alongside aristocrats, entertainers with politicians and rock musicians with charity workers. Elton John performed a hastily rewritten version of ‘Candle in the Wind’, originally his lament for Marilyn Monroe, now dedicated to ‘England’s Rose’, and Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer made a half-coded attack from the pulpit on the Windsors’ treatment of his sister. This was applauded when it was relayed outside and clapping was heard in the Abbey itself. Diana’s body was driven to her last resting place at the Spencers’ ancestral home of Althorp in Northamptonshire. Nearly a decade later, and following many wild theories circulated through cyberspace which reappeared regularly in the press, an inquiry headed by a former Metropolitan Police commissioner concluded that she had died because the driver of her car was drunk and was speeding in order to throw off pursuing ‘paparazzi’ photographers. The Queen recovered her standing after her live broadcast about her wayward former daughter-in-law. She would later rise again in public esteem to be seen to be one of the most successful monarchs for centuries and the longest-serving ever. A popular film about her, including a sympathetic portrayal of these events, sealed this verdict.

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HM Queen Elizabeth II in 2001.

Tony Blair never again quite captured the mood of the country as he did in those sad late summer days. It may be that his advice and assistance to the Queen in 1997 was as vital to her as it was, in the view of Palace officials, thoroughly impertinent. His instinct for popular culture when he arrived in power was certainly uncanny. The New Age spiritualism which came out into the open when Diana died was echoed among Blair’s Downing Street circle. What other politicians failed to grasp and what he did grasp, was the power of optimism expressed in the glossy world of celebrity, and the willingness of people to forgive their favourites not just once, but again and again. One of the negative longer-term consequences of all this was that charismatic celebrities discovered that, if they apologised and bared a little of their souls in public, they could get away with most things short of murder. For politicians, even charismatic ones like Blair, life would prove a little tougher, and the electorate would be less forgiving of oft-repeated mistakes.

(to be continued).

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Years of Transition – Britain, Europe & the World: 1989 – 1992.   1 comment

Heroes and Villains at Home and Abroad:

In the middle of all the heroic struggles for freedom in the world in 1989, the Westminster village ‘bubble’ witnessed an event which seemed anything but heroic. Thatcher had been challenged for the leadership of the Conservative Party by Sir Anthony Meyer, an elderly ‘backbencher’, pro-European, who was seen as a ‘stalking horse’ for bigger beasts to enter the fray in a challenge to the Prime Minister. He was much mocked on the Conservative benches as ‘the stalking donkey’, In the 1989 leadership election on 5 December, Meyer was defeated by 314 votes to 33, yet the vote was ominous for Thatcher when it was discovered sixty Tory MPs had either voted for ‘the donkey’ or abstained. Meyer himself said that people started to think the unthinkable, while in the shadows, prowling through Conservative associations and the corridors of Westminster was a far more dangerous, wounded creature.

Michael Heseltine, who had walked out of the Tory cabinet four years earlier, was licking his wounds, recovering and ready to pounce. He showed sympathy towards Tory MPs, in trouble in their constituencies over the poll tax, but tried neither to lick his lips nor sharpen his claws too obviously in public. On 31 March 1990, the day before the poll tax was due to take effect in England and Wales, there was a massive demonstration against it which ended with a riot in Trafalgar Square (pictured below). Scaffolding was ripped apart and used to throw at the mounted police, cars were set on fire and shop windows were smashed. More than three hundred people were arrested and four hundred policemen were hurt.

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Thatcher dismissed the riots as mere wickedness, which of course they were. Yet beneath them, it was obvious that there was a growing swell of protest by the lower middle class, normally law-abiding voters who insisted that they simply could not and would not pay it. That was what shook her cabinet and her MPs, worried about their electoral prospects in 1992. One by one, the inner core of true Thatcherites peeled off from their leader. Her Environment Secretary, Nicholas Ridley, had to resign after being rude about the Germans in a magazine interview. John Major turned out to be worryingly pro-European after all. Ian Gow, one of her closest associates, was murdered by an IRA bomb at his home. As the Conservatives’ ratings slumped in the country, Tory MPs who had opposed the tax, including Michael Heseltine’s key organiser, Michael Mates, began to ask their colleagues whether it was not now time that she was removed from power.

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Abroad, great world events continued to overshadow the last days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. A few weeks after the fall of Ceaucescu in Romania, on 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela, the man whom Margaret Thatcher had once denounced as a terrorist, was released from gaol in South Africa to global acclaim. In April, Douglas Hurd, who had replaced Geoffrey Howe as the British Foreign Secretary, visited Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow. The BBC’s John Simpson (pictured below) was among a group of journalists had assembled outside the Spassky Gate he Kremlin and as the bells sounded their strange falling peel on the hour they were ushered in by a side entrance.

Inside, there was little obvious security; for Simpson, the Kremlin in 1990 was a more relaxed place than the Palace of Westminster or the White House. However, a Kremlin official was watching and listening to them nervously. The doors were opened and they went into a room that was large and echoing, with Gorbachev and Hurd sitting with their translators in one corner of it, at a small table. Later, Hurd said that Gorbachev had been his usual enthusiastic and ebullient self, but to Simpson, he looked a good deal older and more tired than when he had seen him last in Belgrade, describing to the camera the problems he was having with the ‘regional problems’ in the Soviet Union. Only his eyes remained as intense and concentrated as they had then. He leaned across the table, holding Douglas Hurd’s gaze while their public compliments were translated. Simpson commented:

If the problems of coping with a collapsing empire were telling on him, they had not crushed him. The man who asked Margaret Thatcher at length in December 1984 about how Britain had divested herself of her colonies now had personal experience of the process. 

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At the time, Gorbachev had his problems with the demands of the Baltic States to leave the Soviet Union quickly and without face-saving negotiations. As the journalists grouped around the table where he and Douglas Hurd faced each other, Simpson caught the eye of Eduard Shevardnadze, Soviet Foreign Minister, who was sitting next to Gorbachev:

I mouthed the word ‘Question’ to him and nodded towards Gorbachev. Shevardnadze shrugged and mouthed back the English word ‘Try’. But directly my colleagues and I began asking about Lithuania, Gorbachev smiled and shook his head. “I answered several hundred questions from the ‘Komosol’ this morning. That’s enough for me,” he said. The strain in his face seemed greater than ever. We were ushered out, and the double doors closed on him.

For John Simpson, the lesson of the winter of change in Central and Eastern Europe was that, no matter how hard the Communist Party tried to reform itself, the voters would punish it for the sins and failures of the past. That was what happened at the polls in Hungary later that spring, Imre Pozsgay had made multi-party democracy a possibility; his newly-formed Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) of ‘reformed’ communists received a tiny percentage of the vote. I observed the spirit of national renewal which seemed to sweep the centre-right Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) to power under the leadership of József Antall, the first freely-elected Prime Minister for forty years. In East Germany, most people agreed that Hans Modrow, the former Communist prime minister, was the best and most respected candidate standing in the election; he and his fellow communists felt that it was a considerable achievement to have won sixteen per cent of the vote. By the first few months of 1990 the mood in the Soviet Union was such that if there had been an election there, Simpson sensed that the Communist Party would have been swept out of office. Realising this, Gorbachev insisted that his election as President of the Soviet Union should be carried out by the deputies of the People’s Congress, not by popular vote. When local elections were held in the spring, Communist candidates usually fared badly.

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Above: August 1990 – The Iraqi Army invades and annexes Kuwait.

On 2 August, however, the whole world was taken by surprise by events in the Middle East. John Simpson was on holiday in the south of France (I was on a delayed honeymoon on Jersey) when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, a small but oil-rich nation to the southern end of the region. Iraq was a Soviet ally, but it had also enjoyed the tacit support of both Britain and the US in its war with Iran and had secretly been provided with arms by them while it continued to torture and oppress both its Shi’ite and Kurdish minorities, as well as many dissidents. Within three hours of hearing the news on the radio, Simpson was on a plane back to London and two weeks later he was part of the first European television team to be allowed into Baghdad since the invasion. Negotiation had failed to dislodge the Iraqi forces and Thatcher had urged President George Bush to go into what became the Gulf War. An international coalition had been assembled. Simpson had decided that he wanted to report the war from the epicentre of the crisis, from Baghdad itself. He had left Iraq four months earlier, assuming that the authorities there would never have him back.

This was because he had become involved in the case of Farzad Bazoft, an Iranian journalist working for the Observer in Iraq. Between 1987 and 1989 the young Iranian had travelled to Iraq five times with nothing more substantial than British travel documents. The last time was in September 1989, and on the day he left London the news leaked out that a huge explosion had taken place at Iraqi government’s weapons manufacturing plant at Al Qa’qa sixty miles south of Baghdad. Committed to investigative journalism, Farzad Bazoft used his ‘considerable charm’ to persuade an attractive British nurse living in Baghdad, Daphne Parish, to drive him down there. He also asked an Iraqi minister and the information ministry for help to visit there and told the Observer over a heavily tapped phone line precisely what he was going to do. Farzad was picked up as he was leaving Baghdad airport at the end of his visit. In his luggage were some samples he had gathered from the roadside at Al Qa’qa; presumably, he wanted to have them analysed back in London to reveal what type of weapon had exploded there the previous month. He was tortured and eventually confessed to everything they wanted: in particular, to spying for the British and the Israelis. Daphne Parish refused to confess since she had not broken the law. When the Iraqi authorities put them together Farzad tried to persuade her to do as he had. It would, he said, mean that she would be released.

It didn’t of course; it just meant that the Iraqis had the grounds they wanted to execute Farzad Bazoft. At their trial, Farzad was sentenced to death and Parish to fifteen years. No one translated the sentence for them or told them what was going to happen. A British diplomat had to break the news to Farzad that he was to be hanged directly their meeting ended. Minutes later he was taken out and executed. Daphne Parish was released after ten difficult months in prison. Hanging Farzad Bazoft was Saddam Hussein’s first open defiance of the West. Mrs Thatcher had asked for his release, and called his action ‘an act of barbarism’. Those of us who had been campaigning on behalf of Iraqi and Kurdish dissidents who had fallen foul of such acts of imprisonment, torture and murder for the previous ten years, only to be told these were part of internecine conflict felt some vindication at last in these tragic circumstances. Had firm action, including effective sanctions, been taken against the Ba’athist régime been taken sooner, not only might Farzad and many others have been saved, but the whole sorry chapters of the wars in Iraq might have been unwritten. If the tabloid press in Britain hadn’t suddenly become hysterical about it, insulting the Iraqis, Farzad might, at least, have been spared the hangman’s noose.

All this had determined John Simpson to go to Baghdad himself to report the reality of Saddam’s reign of terror. Six weeks after Farzad’s death, he arrived there with a small team from the BBC and several other British journalists. There were daily demonstrations outside the British embassy complaining about the efforts which the British government was then belatedly making to stop weapons technology reaching Iraq. Simpson and his team were virtual prisoners in their hotel, and no one in the streets wanted to talk to them, knowing that such contacts with Western journalists were dangerous. The Ministry of Information decided to impound all of their video cassettes. Simpson had said something in a broadcast about the total surveillance under which they were working, which had upset their minders. Eamonn Matthews, the producer, decided to stay on to on for a few days to get them back and was picked up at the airport the following day exactly as Farzad had been. He was threatened, treated roughly, and kept a virtual prisoner overnight. When he walked into the Newsnight office in London his face showed signs of the stress he had been under. Simpson assumed he wouldn’t be let back into Iraq, and at that time, was not too upset about that.

When he changed his mind after the invasion of Kuwait in August, Saddam’s henchmen had already started taking British, European and American hostages. The risk seemed to be extremely high, but he couldn’t back away from it. The BBC didn’t like it, however, but he persuaded his bosses to let him see if he could get permission to return there in the first place. Since Britain had cut its diplomatic relations with Iraq after the execution of Farzad Bazoft, he had to apply for a visa in Paris. After receiving a ‘polite’ refusal from the Iraqi ambassador there, he processed through the Middle East reporting on the growing crisis and trying to find a way to get to Baghdad, with the producer and picture editor, Mike Davis. They started in Cairo, moved on to Jerusalem, and ended up in Amman, all without success in getting the visas. Just as he was about to leave for London, he heard that Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister was coming to Amman to give a press conference. He asked a couple of questions during the course of it, then ‘doorstepped’ Aziz as he left:

“Would it be possible for the BBC to visit Baghdad?”

“Why not?” he said, as he climbed into his expensive limousine. This time, though, I had the faint sense that he meant it.

The following day the Iraqi embassy in London called. Our visas had come through. 

When Simpson and his crew finally arrived in Baghdad, the streets were silent and empty. People were terrified of what might happen and mostly stayed indoors with their families. On his first afternoon there, Saddam Hussein visited some of the British hostages from Kuwait, accompanied by Iraqi television cameras, and stroked the hair of a young English boy as he talked to the parents. In an Arab context, there was nothing wrong with that, but back in Britain, the pictures set everyone’s teeth on edge. John Simpson was still meeting officials when the pictures were broadcast, and in between handshakes he tried to make out what was happening on the screen in the corner of the ministerial office. He asked if the hostages were going to be released, but the officials were vague and unwilling to commit themselves. They later discovered what Saddam had said during his meeting with the British family was that women and children taken hostage in Kuwait would be able to leave. They were brought up by coach to Baghdad and flown out from there. Many of the women behaved superbly, as Simpson reported. They smiled and kept calm while the Iraqi cameramen sweated and shoved them around. They talked in terms of quiet endearment about husbands and sons they had been forced to leave behind, and whose fate was completely uncertain. Many had no homes to go to in Britain, and no idea about where their future income would come from, or what it would be. Yet they spoke of returning to Britain’s green and pleasant lands and…

… to nice cups of tea … as if nothing had changed since the Blitz. They fought back the tears for the sake of their children, and busied themselves with their luggage so that the cameras couldn’t pry into their emotions.

Others complained. Their meals were cold, they couldn’t use the swimming pool in the luxurious hotel which the Iraqis had set aside for them in Baghdad, the journey from Kuwait had taken too long. …

Many complained that the Foreign Office or the British embassy had failed to help them enough, and seemed to feel it was all the  Government’s fault, as though Saddam Hussein were an act of God like drought or flooding, and Mrs Thatcher should do something about it.

“I don’t see why we should suffer because of her and President Bush,” said one affronted woman.

Another agreed. “If she’s going to call Saddam a dictator, why didn’t she wait till we were safely out of Kuwait?”

The British tabloid press lapped all this up, of course. They weren’t allowed into Iraq, so they interviewed the women as they came through Amman. Journey Through Hell was the way one headline described the trip by air-conditioned coach from Baghdad; Burning desert, torturing thirst, fiends, evil, sobbing loved ones, anguish: the newspaper hack’s thesaurus was in constant use. When he went back to London for a short break, the first ‘poster’ he saw declared Thatcher Warns Evil Saddam. As John Simpson commented,…

When the newspapers put a compulsory ‘evil’ in front of someone’s name, you know there’s a particular need for coolness and rationality. And to prove the superiority of our civilization over Saddam’s, someone threw a brick through the window of the Iraqi Cultural Centre in Tottenham Court Road.

Simpson returned to Baghdad after a week or so, staying there from September to November 1990. There were some ‘peace tourists’ there too; well-intentioned people who hoped to prevent the war by join the Iraqi protests in Baghdad or try a bit of freelance negotiation. Others had come to plead for the release of their fellow citizens whom Saddam Hussein was holding hostage. As far as the foreign press and media were concerned, a government which had been so paranoid about them a few months earlier now invited them to Baghdad in such large numbers that the pool of English-speaking Iraqi ‘spooks’ was drained by the effort of following them around. By the autumn, there were well over a hundred journalists from the main western countries, and the main international news organisations. The man who had invited them, the chief civil servant in the Information ministry, Najji al-Haddithi, spoke fluent English and had managed to persuade his minister to approach Saddam Hussein with a plan: that Iraq should now regard Western journalists as useful in its own propaganda campaign. As a result, the régime gradually opened its doors to every major British broadsheet newspaper and every major American, Canadian, Japanese and European news organisation, which each had its own representative in Baghdad.

Simpson was allowed to stay the longest because he got on well with Najji al-Hadithi, who liked Britain and the British and had a British sense of humour. In reciprocation, and as he got to know both officials and private citizens, Simpson grew to love Iraq and to sympathise with it too. At a private dinner party in October, he asked al-Hadithi why he allowed so many foreign journalists to come to Baghdad when, only a few months before, the Iraqi government had kept the doors so firmly shut. The chief civil servant answered him,

Because we want you to see that we are human beings like yourselves. So that your readers and viewers will see it. So that if, God forbid, President Bush decides to bomb us, you will know what you are bombing. You are a form of protection for us.

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In the Gulf War, US marines arrive at Khabji, Saudi Arabia, to reinforce the front line.

In all his six months in the country, however, John Simpson had not managed to meet Saddam Hussein himself. In November 1990, just as he was about to arrange the details of their meeting, he found himself suddenly unable to get in touch with the officials, including al-Hadithi. He knew that this was because of Saddam Hussein’s unwillingness to let anyone edit his words. Simpson had warned the officials that the BBC would not be able to run ninety minutes of the president uncut, that this was something that would not be allowed to any British politician, even to the Prime Minister herself. The Iraqis resolved this stand-off by offering the interview to Independent Television News instead, who said yes at once. Simpson was furious and decided to go back to London: he was also tired, after ten weeks in Baghdad without a break. More to the point, when the news came through of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, he decided he wanted to cover the campaign for the succession.

Saint Margaret – Down and Out in Paris and London:

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The final act in Margaret Thatcher’s near-eleven-year premiership had begun on the European continent earlier that autumn, which was also where it was to end at the end of that remarkable season in British politics. There was another summit in Rome and further pressure on the Delors plan. Again, Thatcher felt herself being pushed and dragged towards a federal scheme for Europe. She vented her anger in the Commons, shredding the proposals with the words, ‘No! … No! … No!’ After observing her flaming anti-Brussels tirade, Geoffrey Howe decided, that he had had enough. The former Chancellor and Foreign Secretary had already been demoted by Thatcher to being ‘Leader of the House’. Serving in the two great offices of state, and now Deputy Prime-Minister, a face-saving but significant status, he had endured a decade of her slights and snarls, her impatience and mockery. He would finally leave the government, joining Michael Heseltine and Nigel Lawson on the ‘back benches’ of the Commons but, like them, he would leave on his own terms.

Howe resigned on 1 November, but it was not until a fortnight later, on 13 November 1990, that he stood up from the back benches to make a famous resignation statement which was designed to answer Number Ten’s narrative that he had gone over nothing much at all. Howe had written a carefully worded letter of resignation in which he criticised the Prime Minister’s overall handling of UK relations with the European Community. After largely successful attempts by Number Ten to claim that there were differences only of style, rather than substance, in Howe’s disagreement with Thatcher on Europe, Howe, therefore, chose to send a powerful message of dissent. To a packed chamber, he revealed that Lawson and he had threatened to resign together the previous year at the summit in Madrid. He attacked Thatcher for running increasingly serious risks for the future of the country and criticised her for undermining the policies on EMU proposed by her own Chancellor and Governor of the Bank of England. He also accused her of sending her ministers to negotiate in Brussels without the means to do so. He used a rather strange cricketing simile about captains and broken bats, which would have meant something to most MPs, but very little to those listening on the other side of the channel concerned with British negotiations on EMU in Europe:

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It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.

Curiously and perhaps ironically, it is this part of his statement which is best remembered and most replayed. However, his dispute with Thatcher was over matters of substance more than ones of style; this was no game, not even one of cricket. He was advocating a move back towards a more centrist position on constitutional and administrative issues, such as taxation and European integration.

Geoffrey Howe (pictured more recently, above right) represented a kind of moderate ‘Whiggery’ in the party, being educated, lawyerly, and diligent; while direct, he was conciliatory and collegiate in style. He calmly ended his speech with an appeal to his remaining cabinet colleagues:

The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long.

Television cameras had just been allowed into the Commons so that, across the country as well as across the channel, via satellite channels, people could watch Howe, with Nigel Lawson nodding beside him, Michael Heseltine’s icy-calm demeanour and the white-faced reaction of the Prime Minister herself. The next day Heseltine announced that he would stand against her for the party leadership. She told The Times that he was a socialist at heart, someone whose philosophy at its extreme end had just been defeated in the USSR. She would defeat him. But the balloting system for a leadership contest meant that she would not just have to get a majority of votes among Tory MPs, but that she had to get a clear margin of fifteen per cent in total votes cast. At a summit in Paris, she found that she had failed to clear the second hurdle by just four votes. There would be a second ballot and she announced to a surprised John Sargent of the BBC, waiting at the bottom of the steps outside the summit, that she would fight on. It was a pure pantomime moment, seen live on TV, with viewers shouting “she’s behind you” at their TV sets as she came down the steps behind him. Then she went back up the steps to rejoin the other leaders at the ballet. While she watched the dancing in front of her, Tory MPs were dancing through Westminster either in rage or delight. Her support softened as the night went on, with many key Thatcherites believing she was finished and that Heseltine would beat her in the second ballot, tearing the party in two. It would be better for her to withdraw and let someone else fight him off.

Had she been in London throughout the crisis and able to summon her cabinet together to back her, she might have survived. But by the time she got back, even Maggie couldn’t pull it off. She decided to see her ministers one-by-one in her Commons office. Douglas Hurd and John Major had already given her their reluctant agreement to nominate her for the second round, but the message from most of her ministers was surprisingly uniform. They would give her their personal backing if she was determined to fight on but felt that she would lose to Heseltine. In reality, of course, she had lost them, but none of them wanted to join Heseltine in posterity as a co-assassin. Her MPs were too scared of the electoral vengeance to be wreaked after the poll tax. Only a few on the ultra-right, mostly outside the cabinet, were sincerely urging her to continue the struggle. One of them was Alan Clark, the diarist, who told her to fight on at all costs. She later commented, …

Unfortunately, he went on to argue that… it was better to go down in a blaze of glorious defeat than to go gentle into that good night. Since I had no particular fondness for Wagnerian endings, this lifted my spirits only briefly.

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She returned to Downing Street, where she announced to her cabinet secretary at 7.30 the next morning that she had decided to resign. She held an uncomfortable cabinet meeting with those she believed to have betrayed her, saw the Queen, phoned other world leaders and then finished with one final Commons performance, vigorously defending her record. When she left Downing Street for the last time, in tears, she already knew that she was replaced as Prime Minister by John Major rather than Michael Heseltine. She had rallied support by phone for him among her closest supporters, who had felt that he had not quite been supportive enough. Unlike in the first ballot, a candidate only required a simple majority of Conservative MPs to win, in this case, 186  out of 372 MPs. The ballot was held on the afternoon of 27 November; although Major fell two votes short of the required winning total, he polled far enough ahead of both Douglas Hurd and Michael Heseltine to secure immediate concessions from both of them. With no remaining challengers, Major was formally named Leader of the Conservative Party that evening and was duly appointed Prime Minister the following day. Although Thatcher herself had her private doubts about him, the public transition was complete, and the most nation-changing premiership of modern British history was at its end. Andrew Marr has conveyed something of the drama of this ‘final act’ in her political career:

She had conducted her premiership with a sense of vivid and immediate self-dramatisation, the heroine of peace and war, figthing pitched battles in coalfields and on the streets, word-punching her way through triumphal conferences, haranguing rival leaders, always with a sense that history was being freshly minted, day by day. This is why so many insults levelled at her tended to twist into unintended compliments – ‘the Iron lady’, ‘She who must be obeyed’, ‘the Blessed Margaret’ and even ‘the Great She-Elephant’… She had no sense of her own limits. The world was made anew. Her fall lived up in every way to her record. When a great leader topples, poetry requires that her personal failings bring her down. The story insists that it must be more than… weariness or age. And this story’s ending lives up to its earlier scenes.  

Major (minor), Return to Baghdad & the Magic Moment in Maastricht:

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John Major’s seven years in office make him the third longest-serving peacetime prime minister of modern times, behind Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, but he often gets overlooked, probably because he came in the middle of what is increasingly referred to as the Thatcher-Blair era in British politics. To Mrs Thatcher and others in the cabinet and Commons, he appeared to be a bland, friendly, loyal Thatcherite. He was elected because of who he was not, not a posh, old-school Tory like Douglas Hurd, nor a rich, charismatic charmer like Michael Heseltine. His father was a music-hall ‘artiste’ with a long stage career, Tom Ball: ‘Major’ was his stage name. When John Major was born, his father was already an old man, pursuing a second career as a maker of garden ornaments. He lost everything in a business deal that went wrong and the family had to move from their comfortable suburban house into a crowded flat in Brixton.

John Major-Ball was sent to grammar school, but was a poor student and left at sixteen. He worked as a clerk, made garden gnomes with his brother, looked after his mother and endured a ‘degrading’ period of unemployment before eventually pursuing a career as a banker and becoming a Conservative councillor. His politics were formed by his experiences of the inner-city and he was on the anti-Powellite, moderate wing of the party. He was selected for the Cambridgeshire seat of Huntingdon and entered Parliament in 1979, in the election which brought Thatcher to power. After the 1987 election, Thatcher promoted him to the cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, from where he became Foreign Secretary and then Chancellor. To everyone outside the Tory Party, Major was a blank canvas. At forty-seven, he was the youngest Prime Minister of the century and the least known, certainly in the post-war period. The Conservatives were content with this choice, having grown tired of amateur dramatics. He was seen by many as the bloke from next door who would lead them towards easier times. He talked of building a society of opportunity and compassion, and for privileges once available to ‘the few’ to be spread to ‘the many’. But he had little time to plan his own agenda. There were innumerable crises to be dealt with. He quickly killed off the poll tax and replaced it with a new council tax, which bore a striking resemblance to the ‘banded’ system previously proposed as an alternative.

One of the first things that John Major did as PM was to meet the elder President Bush and promise him full support through the Gulf War. When John Simpson returned to Baghdad in mid-December 1990, the atmosphere had changed as war loomed. Mr Hattem, the BBC’s driver, was much more subservient to their minders, and wouldn’t take the crew anywhere without consulting them. Once they missed an entire story as a result. Saddam Hussein had ordered the release of all the foreign hostages, a decision of considerable importance to the Coalition forces headed by the United States; public opinion at home would have been much more reluctant to support the air war if it had seemed likely that ordinary Americans, Britons and other Europeans would be killed by the bombs and missiles. The man who persuaded Saddam Hussein to give up one of his best cards in an otherwise rather empty hand was Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. According to Simpson, contrary to some Western stereotypes of him, he was always instinctively a man of peace and compromise. Apparently, he told Saddam that if he let the hostages go, this would weaken the moral argument of the US. It turned out to be a tactical mistake, of course, but Arafat had assumed that Saddam had been genuine when, early on in the crisis, he had offered to withdraw from Kuwait if Israel agreed to pull out of the West Bank. He had publicly come out in support of Iraq and had settled in Baghdad for the duration of the crisis. In an interview just before Christmas, he told Simpson that he was certain there would be no war:

YA: “… I can tell you that there will be not be a war. I promise it: you will see. Something will happen: there will be an agreement. You must not think that President Bush is so foolish. You must not think that the Arab brothers are so foolish. War is a terrible thing. Nobody wants it. President Bush will compromise.

At that stage, it looked as if Arafat might well be right about a deal being made. Bush was starting to talk about going the extra mile for peace, and the Iraqi press was announcing a major diplomatic victory for Saddam Hussein. As for the threat of terrorist attacks from Palestinian extremists elsewhere in the Middle East, the PLO had far more control over them in those days, and Arafat had shown that he could be ferocious in curbing it if he chose to do so. By the third week in December, Simpson was getting discreet visits from a very senior figure in the Iraqi régime, whom he nicknamed ‘Bertie’ and who persuaded him that he should go public on Saddam Hussein’s determination not to withdraw from Kuwait before the deadline imposed by the United Nations. Like the US and UK governments, Simpson was inclined to think that Iraq would pull back at the last-minute. ‘Bertie’ was absolutely certain that this wouldn’t happen, and he was right. This was what Simpson told BBC Radio 4 over their line from London about Saddam’s intentions, on 2 January 1991:

‘People who have seen him in the past day or so have told me that he is determined to stand and fight. He told one visiter that if he pulled his forces back now, there would be an uprising against him in the army and he might not be able to cope with it. It feels it’s essential to his own survival in power to face a war: he’ll certainly do it.

Simpson continued to press the same line even when James Baker, the US Secretary of State was due to meet the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, in Geneva, and ITN reported that Aziz was bringing with him an offer of conditional withdrawal. In the event, he brought no such thing, and the meeting broke up without any possibility of a diplomatic settlement. On 13 January, ‘Bertie’ told him that Saddam had said that Iraq would only have to face two waves of air-strikes and that Baghdad would be so destroyed and loss of life would be so great that international opinion would force the US, UK and France to stop, resulting in a diplomatic victory for him. Asked by Simpson whether Saddam himself might be killed in the strikes, ‘Bertie’ said that Saddam’s ‘bunker’ was impenetrable and that he will survive, even if tens of thousands die. On 11 January, they discovered exactly where the bunker was. Saddam Hussein was due to appear at an international Islamic conference at the government centre immediately opposite the Al-Rashid Hotel, where Simpson and the BBC crew were staying, along with many other international film crews and newspaper journalists. They had stationed camera crews at every entrance to the conference centre, in the hope of getting something more than the usual official pictures of the Iraqi president. Simpson himself sat in the hotel, watching the live coverage of the event on Iraqi television:

On cue the great man appeared on stage, holding out his arm in the affected way which is his trade-mark, while the audience went wild. I looked forward to the pictures the camera crews must be getting. But when they came back, each of them said that Saddam hadn’t come past him. That convinced me. We had long heard rumours that his command complex was based under our hotel: this indicated that there were underground roads and passages from the complex to enable him to reach the various important government buildings in the area. … So there we were, living and working a hundred feet or so above Saddam Hussein’s head. We were his protection. And if he knew it, the Coalition forces did as well: the European company which had built much of the bunker had handed over all the blueprints to them. The outlook wasn’t good. The American embassy in Baghdad, before it closed down, had warned everyone who stayed that they could expect to be killed in the bombing. President Bush himself had phoned the editors of the big American organisations represented in Baghdad and begged them to pull out. … the big organisations (with the exception of CNN) obliged.

I have written elsewhere about John Simpson’s own motives for staying and his experiences and accounts of the bombing of the city which began less than a week later, on 17 January, before the BBC crew were forced to leave. Suffice it here to quote from his interview some months later (10.5.91) with Sue Lawley, the then presenter of the popular and long-running BBC Radio programme, Desert Island Discs:

SL: But these things – I mean, it’s not really enough to risk your life to write a book, is it?

(Pause)

JS: I suppose it’s just that I’m a bit of a ‘chancer’, that’s all.

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The Gulf War was the first major conflict since the Second World War in which it was essential for the multi-national allied forces not to have large-scale casualties. It ended when President Bush began to get nervous about the pictures of death and destruction which were coming in from the desert. Public opinion in the United States did not want another Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia, with large-scale carpet-bombing of civilian populations, pictures of massacres and of American GIs being flown home in body bags. In Britain too, people wanted a limited war fought to expel the Iraqi forces from Kuwait, but they didn’t want a huge body-count. They didn’t get one either, though there were some significant losses among the British forces. The Gulf War achieved its limited objectives, freeing Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion and resulting in the immolation the Iraqi army’s Republican Guard. It generated nothing like the controversy of the later Iraq War. It was widely seen as a necessary act of international retribution against a particularly horrible dictator. The bigger problem for the country itself was the quarter of a million deaths which occurred after the war, caused by UN Sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s reaction to them, especially his vengeful acts of genocide against the Iraqi Kurds in the north of the country.

After the controversies and alarms of the Thatcher years, foreign affairs generated less heat, except for the great issue of European federalism. John Major had to turn straight away to confront Jacques Delors’ agenda, which was threatening to divide the Tory Party. If ever a place was well-chosen for debating the end of a Europe of independent nation-states, it was Maastricht in Holland, nestled so close to the German and Belgian borders it is almost nationless. Here the great showdown of the winter of 1991 took place. A new treaty was to be agreed and it was one which made the federal project even more explicit. There was to be fast progress to a single currency. Much of the foreign policy, defence policy and home affairs were to come under the ultimate authority of the EU. A ‘social chapter’ would oblige Britain to accept the more expensive work guarantees of the continent and surrender some of the trade union reforms brought in under Thatcher. For a country with a weak industrial base whose economy partly depended on undercutting her continental rivals, all this would be grave. For a Conservative Party which had applauded Lady Thatcher’s defiant Bruges speech, it was almost a declaration of war, in which Europe’s ‘federal’ destiny had been made more explicit.

John Major was trying to be practical. He refused to rule out the possibility of a single currency for all time, believing it would probably happen one day since it had obvious business and trading advantages. But now was too soon, partly because it would make life harder for the central European countries being freed from communism to join the EU. In his memoirs, he protests that he was accused of dithering, procrastination, lacking leadership and conviction. Yet at Maastricht, he managed, during genuinely tense negotiations, to keep Britain out of most of what was being demanded of the member states. He and his Chancellor, Norman Lamont, negotiated a special British opt-out from monetary union and managed to have the social chapter excluded from the treaty altogether. Major kept haggling late and on every detail, wearing out his fellow leaders with more politeness but as much determination as Thatcher ever had.  For a man with a weak hand, under fire from his own side at home, it was quite a feat. Major returned to plaudits in the newspapers using the remark of an aide that it was ‘game, set and match’ to Britain.

Briefly, Major was a hero. He described his reception by the Tory Party in the Commons as the modern equivalent of a Roman triumph, quite something for the boy from Brixton. Soon after this, he called the election most observers thought he must lose. The most immediate worries had been economic, as the hangover caused by the Lawson boom began to throb. Inflation rose towards double figures, interest rates were at fourteen per cent and unemployment was heading towards two million again. Moreover, a serious white-collar recession was beginning to hit Britain, particularly the south, where house prices would fall by a quarter. An estimated 1.8 million people found that their homes were worth less than the money they had borrowed to buy them in the eighties when credit had been easy to obtain. Now they were in what became known as ‘negative equity’ and were often unable to sell their properties. During 1991 alone, more than seventy-five thousand families had their homes repossessed. The economy was so badly awry, the pain of the poll tax so fresh, Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party now so efficiently organised, that the Tory years seemed sure to be ending. Things turned out differently. Lamont’s pre-election had helped since it proposed to cut the bottom rate of income tax by five pence in the pound, which would help people on lower incomes, badly wrong-footing Labour.

With a party as full of anger and resentment as the Conservative Party behind him, he had little chance of succeeding as prime minister.  He was a throwback to an older kind of conservatism, middle-of-the-road, not too noisy, lacking in any particular conviction except that the Conservative Party was the natural governing party of Britain. The country had indeed been governed by Conservatives like Major for most of the twentieth century, and people were slow to understand how ideological the party had become under Thatcher. John Major shared none of her deepest views. He gambled that even if the backbenchers discovered his lack of right-wing conviction, the voters of Britain who traditionally dislike extremism and ideology would give him their backing. In the eyes of the British press, Major was the council-school boy, the anorak, the ‘swot’, who had ended up in Whitehall. He seemed to fit into a recognisable niche within the dreary, peculiarly English system of snobbery and was looked down on accordingly. In addition, many in the Conservative Party resented the fact that Mrs Thatcher had been overthrown, and would have taken it out on anyone who succeeded her.

Major lacked her convictions, certainly. For the many, this was a relief. These convictions, brandished like sticks, were what made her so unpopular in the country as a whole; and if she had led the party into the 1992 election she would have lost it. No one would have blamed Major if he had led the Tories to defeat in the 1992 election, which he called for April.

(to be continued…)

 

Britain and the World, 1984-89: From local difficulties to global conflicts.   Leave a comment

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The ‘Iron Lady’ at the peak of her powers, with tank and flag, in 1986.

The Brighton Bombing:

During the 1984 Conservative Conference, an IRA bomb partly demolished the Grand Hotel in Brighton, almost killing the Prime Minister and a number of her cabinet. The action was intended as a response to Mrs Thatcher’s hard-line at the time of the 1981 Hunger Strike at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. The plot had been to assassinate her and the whole of the cabinet in order to plunge the country into political chaos, resulting in withdrawal from Northern Ireland. When the bomb went off at 2.50 a.m., Margaret Thatcher was working on official papers, having just finished her conference speech. The blast scattered broken glass on her bedroom carpet and filled her mouth with dust. She soon learned that the bomb had killed the wife of cabinet minister John Wakeham, he himself narrowly escaping; killed the Tory MP Anthony Berry and had badly injured Norman Tebbit, paralysing his wife. After less than an hour’s fitful sleep, she rewrote her speech and told the stunned conference that they had witnessed an attempt to cripple the government, commenting that…

… the fact that we are gathered here now, shocked but composed and determined, is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.

The final death toll from Brighton was five dead and several more seriously injured, but its consequences for British politics, which could have been momentous, turned out to be minimal. If the IRA could not shake her, could anything else?

The Gorbachevs in London:

In November 1984, Mikhail Gorbachev arrived at the VIP terminal at Heathrow airport, together with his wife, Raisa. The British had spotted him first, in the summer of that year, if not earlier. He was a lawyer by training, which he had done at the end of the Stalin period. So, while he accepted there were rules to be obeyed, he also knew that they were only really there to be bent. He and Raisa did a great deal in their few days in London, but they did not perform the obligatory ceremony of laying a wreath on Marx’s tomb in Highgate Cemetery. Instead, they paid impromptu visits to Westminster Abbey and Number Ten Downing Street. The Foreign Office arranged a formal lunch for the Gorbachev at Hampton Court Palace, to which they invited a couple of hundred worthies, including BBC journalist John Simpson. He was seated next to a man from Moscow who was to become Gorbachev’s most senior advisors. Simpson asked him whether Gorbachev would really be able to make a difference to the Soviet Union. The Russian replied:

“He will have to,” he said. I noticed he didn’t trouble to question my assumption that Gorbachev would get the top job.

“Why?”

“Because a great deal has to be done. Much, much, more, I think, than you in the West realize.”

The Thatcher Revolution at Home – “Don’t tell Sid!”:

If Labour had been accused of creating a giant state sector whose employees depended on high public spending and could, therefore, be expected to become loyal Labour voting-fodder, then the Tories were intent on creating a property-owning democracy. The despair of Labour politicians as they watched it working was obvious. By the end of the 1980s, there was a large and immovable private sector in Britain of share-owners and home-owners, probably working in private companies, SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and increasingly un-unionised. The proportion of adults holding shares rose from seven per cent to twenty-five per cent during Thatcher’s years in power. Thanks to the ‘right to buy’ policy for council tenants, more than a million families purchased the hoses they lived in, repainting and refurbishing them and then watching their value shoot up, particularly as they had been sold them at a discount of between a third and a half of market value. The proportion of owner-occupied homes rose from fifty-five per cent in 1979 to sixty-seven per cent in 1989. In real terms, total personal wealth rose by eighty per cent in the eighties.

Looking below the surface, however, the story becomes more complex. Of the huge rise in wealth, relatively little was accounted for by shares. The increase in earnings and the house-price boom were much more important. The boom in shareholdings was fuelled by the British love of a bargain than by any deeper change in the culture. There was always a potential conflict between the government’s need to raise revenue and it hopes of spreading share ownership. In the early eighties, ministers erred on the side of the latter. The breakthrough privatization was that of fifty-two per cent of British Telecom in November 1984, which raised an unprecedented 3.9 billion. It was the first to be accompanied by a ‘ballyhoo’ of television and press advertising and was easily oversubscribed. In the event, two million people, or five per cent of the adult population bought ‘BT’ shares, almost doubling the total number of shareholders in a single day. After this came British Gas, as natural gas fields had been supplying Britain from the North Sea since the late sixties, pumping ashore at Yarmouth and Hull, replacing the coal-produced system. With its national pipe network and showrooms, natural gas had become the country’s favourite source of domestic energy and was, therefore, a straightforward monopoly. The government prepared for the sale with another TV campaign featuring a fictitious neighbour who had to be kept in the ‘dark’ about the bargain sale – “Don’t tell Sid!” This raised 5.4 billion, the biggest single privatization.

With the equally bargain-price shares offered to members of building societies when they de-mutualised and turned into banks, Britain developed a class of one-off shareholders, ‘kitchen capitalists’. They soon sold off their shares at a profit, few of them developing into long-term stock market investors, as had been hoped. Those who kept their shares did not go on to buy more, and rarely traded the ones they had acquired as a result of the privatizations, demutualisations and former employment options. The long-term failure to nurture a deeply rooted shareholding democracy has added to the contemporary criticism that public assets were being sold off too cheaply. The then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson later admitted that wider share ownership was an important policy objective and we were prepared to pay a price for it. The failure, ultimately, to achieve that objective showed that there were limits to the Thatcher Revolution. The most successful privatizations were the ones where the company was pushed into full competition, as with British Airways, Rolls-Royce and British Aerospace. The utilities – gas, electricity, water – were always different, because they were natural monopolies. Yet without competition, where would the efficiency gains come from? This question was left as a rhetorical one, unanswered until decades later. The water and electricity companies were split up in order to create regional monopolies, with power generation split into two mega-companies, National Power and Powergen. In reality, few people outside the ‘Westminster village’ cared who owned the companies they depended on, so long as the service was acceptable. Britain was becoming a far less ideological country and a more aggressively consumerist one.

Heseltine and the Helicopters:

In the winter of 1984-85, the great Westland Helicopter crisis that broke over the Thatcher government was a battle between ministers about whether a European consortium of aerospace manufacturers or and American defence company, working with an Italian firm should take over a struggling West Country helicopter maker. While this was a government that claimed to refuse to micro-manage industry, yet the fight about the future of the Yeovil manufacturer cost two cabinet ministers’ jobs and pitted Thatcher against the only other member of her cabinet with real charisma, Nigel Heseltine. The small storm of Westland gave early notice of the weaknesses that would eventually destroy the Thatcher government, though not for another five years.

One weakness was the divide throughout the Tory Party over Britain’s place in the world. By the 1980s, helicopters were no longer a marginal defence issue. They would become crucial to Britain’s capabilities, the new army mule for hauling artillery over mountains and across stretches of water. United Technologies, the US company whose Sikorsky subsidiary built the Black Hawk helicopter, wanted to gain control over part of Britain’s defence industry. Alexander Haig, Reagan’s Secretary of State who had been so helpful to Mrs Thatcher during the Falklands Campaign was now back at his old company and ‘called in his markers’ for the American bid. Adopting a position of outward neutrality would probably have favoured it anyway as a further strengthening of the Special Relationship between the UK and the US. But on the other side, supporting the European consortium, were those who felt that the EC had to be able to stand alone in defence technology. Michael Heseltine and his business allies thought this was vital to protect jobs in the cutting-edge science-based industries. The US must not be allowed to dictate prices and terms to Europe. So the conflict was concerned with whether Britain stood first with the US or with the EC. It was a question which would continue to grow in importance throughout the eighties until, in the nineties, it tore the Conservatives apart.

The second weakness exposed by the Westland Affair was the Thatcher style of government, which was more presidential and more disdainful of the role of cabinet ministers than any previous government. The Prime Minister was conducting more and more business in small committees or bilaterally, with one minister at a time, ensuring her near absolute predominance. She gathered a small clique of trusted advisors around her. Just before her fall, Nigel Lawson concluded that she was taking her personal economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, more seriously than she was taking him, her next door neighbour in No 11, her Chancellor of the Exchequer. She used her beloved press officer, Bernard Ingham to cut down to size any ministers she had fallen out with, briefing against them and using the anonymous lobby system for Westminster journalists to spread the message.  In his memoirs, Ingham angrily defends himself against accusations of the improper briefing of the press, yet there are too many witnesses who found the Thatcher style more like that of the court of Elizabeth Tudor than that of a traditional cabinet, a place which demanded absolute loyalty and was infested with sycophantic favourites. In the mid-eighties, this was a new way of doing the business of government and to ministers on the receiving end, it was freshly humiliating.

But if there was one minister unlikely to take such treatment for long, it was Michael Heseltine (pictured below at a Conservative Party Conference). He was the only serious rival to Thatcher as the ‘darling of the party’ and media star, handsome, glamorous, rich and an excellent public speaker. He was said by his friend, fellow Tory MP and biographer, Julian Critchley, to have mapped out his future career on the back of an envelope, while still a student at Oxford, decade by decade, running through making his fortune, marrying well, entering Parliament and then, 1990s, Prime Minister. Though Heseltine commented that he could not remember doing this, it was in character. As a young man, he had flung himself into the characteristic sixties businesses of property investment and magazine publishing. A passionate anti-socialist, he had won a reputation for hot-headedness since once picking up the Mace, the symbol of Parliamentary authority, during a Commons debate about steel nationalization, and waving it at the Labour benches in such a violent manner as to earn himself the nickname ‘Tarzan’. His speeches to Tory Party conferences were full of blond hair-tossing, hilarious invective and dramatic gestures. In her memoirs, Thatcher portrayed Heseltine as a vain, ambitious man who flouted cabinet responsibility. The Westland crisis was, in her view, simply about his psychological flaws. However, they agreed about much, but was a more committed anti-racialist than she was and more deeply in favour of the EC, and she always regarded him as a serious and dangerous rival.

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The two bigger beasts of the Tory Party in the eighties went to war on behalf of the two rival bidders for Westland. She was livid that he was using his position as Defence Secretary to warn the company’s shareholders about the dangers of going with the Americans, potentially shutting out European business. She thought he was tipping the scales against Sikorsky, despite Westland’s preference for them. Certainly, Heseltine repeatedly made it clear that the Ministry of Defence would not be buying their Black Hawk helicopter and did much to rally the European consortium. Thatcher, meanwhile, was deploying the public line that she was only interested in what was best for the shareholders while trying to make sure the Americans were kept in the race, ahead of the Europeans. Eventually, she sought advice from the government law officers about whether Heseltine had been behaving properly. A private reply was leaked in order to weaken his case. Furious about this wholly inappropriate act which he suspected was the responsibility of Thatcher and Ingham, Heseltine demanded a full inquiry. During a meeting of the cabinet, she counter-attacked, trying to rein him in by ordering that all future statements on Westland must be cleared first by Number Ten. Hearing this attempt to gag him, Heseltine calmly got up from the cabinet table, announced that he must leave the government, walked into the street and told a solitary reporter that he had just resigned.

The question of exactly who had leaked the Attorney General’s legal advice in a misleadingly selective way to scupper the European bid then became critical. The leaking of private advice broke the rules of Whitehall confidentiality, fairness and collective government. The instrument of the leak was a comparatively junior civil servant to the Trade Secretary, Leon Brittan. But it was unclear as to who had told Colette Brown to do this, though many assumed it was her boss, Bernard Ingham. He denied it, and Mrs Thatcher also denied any knowledge of the leak. After dramatic Commons exchanges during which she was accused of lying to the House, she pulled through, while Leon Brittan was made a scapegoat. Some of Thatcher’s greatest business supporters such as Rupert Murdoch then weighed in on the side of the American bid. Eventually, amid accusations of arm-twisting and dirty tricks, the company went to Sikorsky and the storm subsided. But it had revealed the costs of the Thatcher style of government. Getting the better of foreign dictators and militant trade union leaders was one thing, but behaving the same way with senior members of the cabinet and the Tory Party was quite another. Heseltine wrote later:

I saw many good people broken by the Downing Street machine. I had observed the techniques of character assassination; the drip, drip, drip, of carefully planted, unattributable stories that were fed into the public domain, as colleagues became marked as somehow “semi-detached” or “not one of us”.

‘Shadowing’ the Deutschmark & ‘Diva’ Diplomacy:

There were also debates and rows about economic policy in relation to the EC. The Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, wanted to replace the old, rather wobbly system of controlling the money supply targets, the Medium Term Financial Strategy, with a new stratagem – tying the pound to the German mark in the European Exchange Rate System (ERM). This was an admission of failure; the older system of measuring money was useless and in the world of global fast money. Linking the pound to the Deutschmark was an alternative, with Britain subcontracting her anti-inflation policy to the more successful and harder-faced disciplinarians of the West German Central Bank. Lawson was keen on this alternative ‘shadowing’ method; in effect, he was looking for somewhere firm to plant down policy in the context of the new global financial free-for-all. Thatcher disagreed, arguing that currencies should be allowed to float freely, but at the time little of this debate was known beyond the specialist financial world.

Other ‘Europe’- related debates were conducted more openly in general political life. The mid-eighties were years of Thatcherite drift over Europe. Jacques Delors, later her great enemy as President of the European Commission, had begun his grand plan for the next stages of ‘the union’. Thatcher knew that the ERM was intended one day to lead to a single European currency, part of Delors’ plan for a freshly buttressed European state. Lawson ignored her objections and shadowed the Deutschmark anyway. But when the cost of her Chancellor’s policy became excessive, she ordered him to stop which, under protest, he did. However, the Single European Act, which smashed down thousands of national laws preventing free trade inside the EC, promised free movement of goods, capital, services and people, and presaging the single currency, was passed with her enthusiastic support. She rejected the sceptics’ view that when the continental leadership talked of an economic and political union, they really meant it.

Back in the mid-eighties, personal relationships mattered as much in modern diplomacy as they had in Renaissance courts, and the Thatcher-Gorbachev courtship engaged her imagination and human interest. She was becoming the closest ally of Ronald Reagan, in another international relationship which was of huge emotional and political significance to her. In these years she became an ‘international diva’ of conservative politics, feted by crowds from Russia and China to New York. Her wardrobe, coded depending on where an outfit had been first worn, told its own story: Paris Opera, Washington Pink, Reagan Navy, Toronto Turquoise, Tokyo Blue, Kremlin Silver, Peking Black. Meanwhile, she was negotiating the hard detail of Hong Kong’s transitional status before it was handed over to Communist China in 1997. She got a torrid time at Commonwealth conferences for her opposition to sanctions against the apartheid régime in South Africa. At home, the problem of persistently high unemployment was nagging away, though it started to fall from the summer of 1986 seemed to fall.

The Bombing of Libya and ‘BBC Bias’:

Then there was the highly unpopular use of British airbases for President Reagan’s attack on Libya in 1986. This provoked a controversy, not for the first time, between the BBC and the Thatcher government. The PM’s supporters on the right of the Tory Party had long been urging her to privatize the BBC and she herself appeared to believe that it was biased against her government; by which she meant that it was too independent. She still remembered the irritation she felt at some of the phrases its leading broadcasters had used back in the Falklands War: if we are to believe the British version, etc.  Her view was that as the British Broadcasting Corporation, a public service broadcaster supported by the television license fee, it should give the British government’s view without questioning it. Yet it was perfectly obvious that the reason the BBC was so respected both in Britain and abroad was that it was genuinely independent of the British government. The BBC was legally obliged by its Charter to remain independent of party political control. Lord Reith, its first Director-General, had successfully resisted Churchill’s attempt to take over its radio service for government propaganda during the General Strike of 1926. It was one of the few great organs of state which Margaret Thatcher was not able to dominate in some way, a constitutional reality which made her visibly restless on occasions.

Because the American aircraft which bombed Libya took off from bases in Britain, that made it a British issue. The pretext for the attack was a terrorist attack on a Berlin nightclub used by American servicemen, but far from being the work of Libyan agents, it proved to have been carried out by a group linked to the Syrian government. There was a good deal of public disquiet about it, especially since it was strongly suspected that the Reagan administration was primarily bombing Libya to teach bigger and more formidable countries, chiefly Iran, a lesson. Libya was a feeble, though intermittently nasty little dictatorship which could never organise significant acts of state terrorism. The real battle was a propaganda one. Colonel Gaddafi (pictured below in 1979) claimed that his daughter had been killed in the raid, and showed her body to the journalists in Tripoli at the time. It wasn’t until some time later that it became clear that he had adopted the little girl as she lay dying from her injuries. But whoever’s daughter she was, she was certainly killed by the American bombing.

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The British government was rather rattled by the hostility which sections of the public were starting to show over the bombing; and since, at the times of crisis, people tend to turn to the BBC for their information, some senior ministers felt that this public opposition was the fault of the BBC and wanted it to be taught a lesson. The chairman of the Conservative Party, Norman Tebbit, announced that he would be investigating the BBC’s coverage of the raid. The BBC allowed itself to seem rattled by the threats he and his party made, which made him feel justified in his approach. John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor recalled sitting with a few journalists in the canteen at the Television Centre when the tannoy went:

‘PBX. Calling Mr John Simpson.’

I hurried over to the phone. The deputy editor of television news was on the other end.

“We’ve just had Tebbit’s report,” he said. “It’s serious. The editor would be grateful if you could get up here.”

I finished my fish and went up. A small group of worried-looking people were sitting round in the editor’s office. The editor handed me a copy of the document Tebbit and his researchers at Conservative Central Office had compiled. I looked through it rather nervously, anxious to see what it had to say about my own reporting of the attack. It made a few neutral comments, then one which was rather complimentary; that was all.

“That’s all OK,” I blurted out, voicing my own relief. Nothing much there.” 

The editor turned to me. I could see a faint ray of hope was glimmering for the first time.

“You think so?”

I realised that I had been speaking purely for myself. But it seemed unkind and unreasonable to destroy his only cause for optimism. He must have felt that his career was on the line.

“Oh sure, it’s full of loopholes. Just go through it carefully and you’ll find them all,” I said.

I hadn’t read it carefully enough to know if that were true, but I have never yet read a long document that you couldn’t pick holes in.

Chris Cramer, a tough character who was the news editor at the time… agreed. Cramer and I were both affronted by the idea that in a free society the government should presume to dictate to the broadcasters and try to make them report only what the government wanted. Maybe we were both chancers too.

“John’s right,” he said. “We should go through this with a fine-tooth comb. We’ll find lots of things wrong with it.”

Which is what happened. We divided the Conservative Central Office document up between us, and spent the next couple of days going through it point by point. The document compared the BBC’s coverage of the raid unfavourably with ITN’s, and tried to make the case that the BBC had been deliberately biased. Some of the individual points it made were reasonable enough: the news presenter on the night of the bombing had added various inaccuracies to the sub-editors’ scripts. (Soon afterwards she left the BBC.)

But it was silly to try to pretend that there was some underlying bias. I have never yet found a senior Conservative who really believed that…  

It hadn’t occurred to Norman Tebbit that the BBC would stand its ground since in the past it had fallen over itself with nervousness at the mere suggestion that the government of the day was upset with it. When it issued its response there was a big wave of public support for the BBC, partly because Kate Adie had established herself in the public eye as a brave, serious reporter, staying in Tripoli when the bombs were falling. Previously, women reporters had tended to be given social affairs to report on. Here was a woman who had become a war correspondent; something unprecedented on British television at that time, though there have been many equally brave successors since. But there was also public support for the BBC because, for all its failings, the BBC was considered to be as British an institution as any other in the country, and ninety per cent of the population had some contact with it each week in the pre-internet era. Norman Tebbit had failed to realise the British people did not like party political attacks on ‘Auntie’. An opinion poll taken shortly afterwards indicated that Conservative voters supported ‘the Beeb’ on almost the same scale as voters for other parties. Thatcher, aware that she would have to call a general election within the next year or so, quickly distanced herself from her erstwhile lieutenant’s campaign, leading to the first rift between the two of them. On the night she won the 1987 election, Simpson tried to interview her by the railings of St John’s, Smith Square, next to Conservative Central Office, amid rabid Young Conservatives chanting calls for the privatisation of the BBC:

Transcript of interview with Prime Minister, 18.6.87:

Speakers: Rt Hon Margaret Thatcher, PC MP (non-staff), John Simpson (contract)…

JS: The crowd here seem to want you to privatise the BBC. Are you planning to do that?

MT: Well, I think… Well, you know, I must really go and speak to them.

Of course, she never again considered doing so, even if she had been temporarily persuaded by Tebbit’s arguments. She knew what people would stand for, and what they wouldn’t; it was when this instinct finally deserted her that her decline and fall began.

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The ‘Poll Tax’ and the Peasants:

After the election, a wider dilemma emerged right across domestic policy, from the inner cities to hospitals, schools to police forces. Thatcher believed that government should set the rules, deliver sound money and then stand back and let other people get on with providing services. In practice, she often behaved differently, always more pragmatic and interventionist than her image suggested. At least, however, the principle was clear. But when it came to the public services there was no similar principle. She did not have the same respect for independent ‘movers and shakers’ in the hospitals, schools and town halls as she had for entrepreneurs and risk takers she admired in business. Before the Thatcher revolution, the Conservatives had been seen, on balance, defenders of local democracy. They had been strongly represented on councils across the country and had been on the receiving end of some of the more thuggish threats from Labour governments intent, for instance, on abolishing grammar schools. The town and county hall Conservatives had seen local representatives on hospital boards and local education authorities as bulwarks against socialist Whitehall. Margaret Thatcher herself had begun her political apprenticeship doing voluntary public work for her father, Alderman Roberts, sitting on various unpaid committees.

Yet in power, Thatcher and her ministers could not trust local government, or any elected and therefore independent bodies at all. Between 1979 and 1994, an astonishing 150 Acts of Parliament were passed removing powers from local authorities and switched to unelected quangos. The first two Thatcher governments transferred power and discretion away from people who had stood openly for election, and towards the subservient agents of Whitehall, often paid-up Tory party members. Despite his apparent love for Liverpool before the Militant takeover, Michael Heseltine attacked the whole of local government with new auditing with new auditing arrangements, curbs on how much tax they could raise, and spending caps as well. In the health service, early attempts to decentralize were rapidly reversed and a vast top-down system of targets and measurements was put in place, driven by a new planning organisation. It cost more and the service, undoubtedly, got worse. Similar centralist power-grabs took place in urban regeneration, where unelected Urban Development Corporations, rather than local councils, were given money to pour into rundown cities. The biggest city councils, most notably the Greater London Council, were simply abolished. Its powers were distributed between local borough councils and an unelected central organisation controlled by Whitehall. By 1990 there were some twelve thousand appointed officials running London compared with just 1,900 elected borough councillors. Housing Corporations took ninety per cent of the funds used by housing associations to build new cheap homes. In the Thatcher years, their staff grew sevenfold and their budgets twenty-fold.

Margaret Thatcher would say the poll tax, the name associated with the tax per head which was the catalyst for the bloody Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was actually an attempt to save local government. Like schools, hospitals and housing, local councils had been subjected to a barrage of ministers trying to stop them spending money, or raising it, except as Whitehall wished. Since 1945, local government had been spending more, but the amount of money it raised independently still came from a relatively narrow base of people, some fourteen million property-owners. Thatcher had been prodded by Edward Heath into promising to replace this tax, ‘the rates’, as early as 1974, but nobody had come up with a plausible and popular-sounding alternative. She had always disliked the rates system intensely, regarding them as an attack on self-improvement and other Tory values, and in government, the problem nagged away at her. Once, local elections were not national news; they were about who was best suited to run towns and counties, but in the late sixties and seventies they became national news, a regular referendum on the central government. Under Thatcher, the Conservatives lost swathes of local councils, resulting in more Labour-controlled councils which were even more distrusted by the central government, resulting in more powers away from them. The elections became even less relevant, fuelling more protest voting, and it soon became clear to government ministers that more councils were aping Liverpool by pursuing expensive hard-left policies partly because so few of those who voted for them were actually ratepayers themselves, therefore feeling no personal ‘pinch’.

One way of correcting this anomaly would be to make all those who voted for local councils pay towards their cost. This was the origin of the poll tax or community charge as it was officially called, a single flat tax for everybody. It would mean lower bills for many homeowners and make local councils more responsive to their voters. On the other hand, it would introduce a new, regressive tax for twenty million people, with the poorest paying as much as the richest. This broke a principle which stretched back much further back than the post-war ‘consensus’ to at least the 1920s and the replacement of the Poor Law. But Public Assistance or social security as it was now known, was no longer charged or administered locally so that there was some logic in the change to a flat, universal charge. This proposal was sold to the Prime Minister by Kenneth Baker at a seminar at Chequers in 1985, along with the nationalisation of business rates. Nigel Lawson tried to talk the Prime Minister out of it, telling her it would be completely unworkable and politically catastrophic. The tax was discussed at the same cabinet meeting that Michael Heseltine walked out of over the Westland affair. It might have worked if it had been brought in gradually over a whole decade, as was first mooted, or at least four, as was planned at that meeting.

But at the 1987 Tory Conference, intoxicated by the euphoria of the recent third election victory, party members urged Thatcher to bring it in at once. She agreed since there was some urgency resulting from the dramatic increase in property prices in the eighties. Rates, like the subsequent council tax, were based on the relative value of houses across Britain, changing with fashion and home improvement. This meant that, periodically, there had to be a complete revaluation in order to keep the tax working. Yet each revaluation meant higher rates bills for millions of households and businesses, and governments naturally tried to procrastinate over them. In Scotland, however, a different law made this impossible and a rates revaluation had already happened, causing political mayhem. As a result, Scottish ministers begged Thatcher to be allowed the poll tax first, and she also agreed to this. Exemptions were made for the unemployed and low paid, but an attempt, by nervous Tory MPs, to divide the tax into three bands so that it bore some relation to people’s ability to pay was brushed aside despite a huge parliamentary rebellion. When the tax was duly introduced in Scotland, it was met by widespread protest. In England, the estimates of the likely price of the average poll tax kept rising. Panicking ministers produced expensive schemes to cap it, and to create more generous exemptions, undermining the whole point of the new tax. Capping the tax would remove local accountability; the more exemptions there were, the lesser the pressure would be on the councils from their voters. Yet even the PM grew alarmed as she was told that over eighty per cent of voters would be paying more. Yet she pushed ahead with the introduction of the tax, due to take effect in England and Wales on 1st April 1990.

Bruges Bluntness & Madrid Madness:

The poll tax was one of the causes of her downfall in that following year, the other being Europe. This factor began to be potent in 1988, when turned against Jacques Delors’ plans and went to Bruges in Belgium to make what became her definitive speech against the federalist tide which was now openly advancing towards her. The Foreign Office had tried to soften her message, but she had promptly pulled out her pen and written the barbs and thorns back in again. She informed her audience that she had not…

… successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new level of dominance from Brussels.

There was much else besides. Her bluntness much offended continental politicians as well as her own Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe. Next, she reappointed her monetarist economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, who was outspokenly contemptuous of Lawson’s exchange rate policy. So, she was taking on two big cabinet beasts with great Offices of State at the same time, creating a serious split at the top of government. Then, Jacques Delors, the determined French socialist re-entered the story, with a fleshed-out plan for an economic and monetary union, which would end with the single currency, the euro. To get there, all EU members would need to put their national currencies into the ERM, which would draw them increasingly tightly together, which was just what Lawson and Howe wanted and just what Thatcher did not. Howe and Lawson ganged up, telling her that she must announce that Britain would soon join the ERM, even if she left the question of the single currency to one side for the time being. On the eve of a summit in Madrid where Britain was due to announce its view the two of them visited Thatcher together in private, had a blazing row with her and threatened to resign together if she did not give way. She did, and, for the time being, the crisis abated.

Piper Alpha – The Price of Oil and Who Profited?

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In June 1988, 185 men were burned or blown to death in the North Sea when an oil platform, Piper Alpha, blew up, yet there has been little commemoration of the tragic event over the past thirty years, in popular memorials (as contrasted with earlier coal-mining disasters of a similar scale), political memoirs or the general media. In the case of oil, the great adventure was lived out at the margins of British experience, halfway to Scandinavia, with its wild scenes played out in the bars of Aberdeen and Shetland, far removed from the media in Glasgow, never mind London. Exploration, equipment and production were also largely controlled by American companies. The number of British refineries actually fell in the eighties, the peak decade for oil production, from twenty-one to thirteen, and forty per cent of those were also owned by US-based companies. According to Nigel Lawson, the revenues from oil taxes gave ‘a healthy kick-start’ to the process of cutting the government deficit, though he always argued that the overall impact of North Sea oil was exaggerated, especially by the Scottish Nationalists (SNP). Ireland also benefited greatly from new investment from the United States in the search for new sources of oil and gas in Irish waters from the 1970s, and their exploitation in the eighties. In addition, as a poorer member state of the EU, the Republic gained a disproportionately larger share of the EU budget than the UK as a whole, so that by the end of the decade the Irish economy was expanding rapidly and the long-term pattern of Irish emigration was being reversed. Both British and Irish trade with the EU increased, and Ireland’s economy became less dependent on Britain’s.

Birt, the BBC & Beijing:

Following its own battles with Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit following the bombing of Libya, by the end of the eighties the BBC went on to become the biggest newsgathering organisation in the world and its reputation for accurate, impartial reporting continued to grow around the globe. In 1988, John Birt joined the Corporation as head of news and current affairs, reforming and revitalising that area before going on to become director-general. Under his leadership, there was a five-fold expansion. The foreign affairs unit grew to eleven people, and Simpson was made the head of it. The expansion came just in time considering how much the world was to change in the following year, in a series of seismic upheavals which affected almost every country on earth. In May 1989, Simpson and Adie teamed up in Beijing, covering the infamous massacre in Tiananmen Square:

In the BBC’s offices I found the redoubtable Kate Adie. She had been out in the streets all night with her camera team, and was in bad shape. A man had been killed right beside her, and her arm had been badly grazed in the incident. Together we assembled our reports. There was no time to edit words to pictures, nor even of seeing the pictures. All we could do was write our scripts, record them, and send them off to Hong Kong with the cassettes.

I sat at the computer, numbed by everything I had seen and determined not to get too emotional about it. I’d made real friends among the students in Tiananmen Square. The thought that they might now be dead or injured, that one of their best and most decent manifestations of recent times had been snuffed out in front of me was too disturbing and too painful for me to deal with. And so I took refuge in the old BBC concepts of balance and objectivity; there wasn’t an ounce of emotion in my script.

Kate’s report was very different. It was full of emotion. Six months later, when I finally watched the two reports side by side, I thought that while mine was perfectly accurate it had nothing to do with the real feeling of what had taken place. Hers did. I suppose the two were complimentary, and they were certainly used side by side on the news in Britain. 

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Above. The Morning of 20 May in Tiananmen Square.

A Tale of Two Cities – a Hell of a Dickens:

On 14th July 1989, Simpson was in Paris, reporting on the meeting of the ‘G7′, the leaders of the West’s seven leading capitalist powers, hosted by Francois Mitterrand, the French President. With hindsight, the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution was perhaps the single moment which best reflected the triumph of liberal democracy over all rival systems of government. The wealth, the grandeur, the personal liberty, the prestige and power which were on display were greater than the world had seen before. Soon, however, the decline in the power of the United States became more obvious. Margaret Thatcher still seemed unassailable as Britain’s prime minister, but would be politically vulnerable within a few months. While President Bush handed over the key to the Bastille which Lafayette had taken with him to America shortly after the Revolution, her gift to Mitterand was a first edition copy of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: inexpensive, and not very good as history. It was a grudging, insular gesture, typical of British attitudes towards France in the 1980s, which had chosen to follow an economic policy which was the exact opposite of Thatcherism. She disapproved not just of France, but of the occasion and the whole business of celebrating revolution. Her view was that evolution was greatly preferable to revolution, which was of little use to those, in 1789 or 1989, who lived under an autocracy which refuses to evolve. Although Mrs Thatcher may have helped to persuade Ronald Reagan that Mikhail Gorbachev was ‘a man to do business with’, according to John Simpson…

It wasn’t Mrs Thatcher’s economic principles which caused the changes in the Soviet bloc, but the simple, verifiable fact that Western capitalist society was effective, rich and reasonably free, while the countries of the communist bloc were manifestly not.

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In the same month, four weeks after her climb-down at the Madrid summit, Thatcher hit back at her Chancellor and Foreign Secretary. Back in London, she unleashed a major cabinet reshuffle, compared at the time to Macmillan’s ‘night of the long knives’ in 1962. Howe was demoted to being Leader of the Commons, though she reluctantly agreed to him having the face-saving title of Deputy Prime Minister, a concession rather diminished when her press officer, Bernard Ingham, instantly told journalists that it was a bit of a non-job. Howe was replaced by the relatively unknown John Major, the former chief secretary. Lawson survived only because the economy was weakening and she thought it too dangerous to lose him just at that point. He was having a bad time on all sides, including from the able shadow chancellor John Smith. When Walters had another pop at his ERM policy, he decided that enough was enough and resigned on 26 October, telling the PM she should treat her ministers better. He was replaced by the still relatively unknown John Major.

Budapest, Berlin & Bucharest: Falling Dominoes of 1989:

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Meanwhile, all around them, the world was changing. On 23rd October I was in Hungary on a third, personal visit, when the country changed its name and constitution. It had dropped the word ‘People’s’ from its title and was henceforth to be known simply as the Republic of Hungary. My first visit, an ‘official’ one, as a member of a British Quaker delegation, had been exactly a year earlier, when the withdrawal of Soviet troops had been announced, along with the decision of the then communist government that the 1956 Revolution, which had begun on the same day, would no longer be referred to by them as a ‘counter-revolution’. A few days later in 1989, East Germany announced the opening of its borders to the West and joyous Berliners began hacking at the Berlin Wall.

Then the communists in Czechoslovakia fell, and at Christmas the Romanian dictator Ceaucescu was dragged from power and shot, along with his wife. According to John Simpson, who also witnessed all these events, including those in Bucharest at close quarters (as pictured above), found among the dictators’ possessions was a Mont Blanc pen given to him by the British Labour Party, presumably during the couple’s visit to London in 1978. This was instigated by the then Foreign Secretary, Dr David Owen who, along with James Callaghan, persuaded the Queen against her will that the Ceaucescus should be invited. The pictures below show them riding in State along the Mall. But I have written about all these events elsewhere.  Suffice it to say, just here, that, since the early seventies, politicians of all persuasions were prepared to overlook Ceaucescu’s increasing megalomania and the unpleasantness of the government he controlled because he represented an independent voice within the Warsaw Pact, refusing to send Romanian forces to crush the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968. As early as 1972, a left-wing Labour MP had written:

As a result of unconditional acceptances of the past abuses of the legal system, Ceaucescu has declared that steps must be taken to ensure that such injustices can never occur in the future. The importance of democracy is therefore being increasingly stressed and… there is no question of rigging trials as occurred in the past. … Interference by anyone, no matter how important, is unacceptable in Ceaucescu’s view. 

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The not-so-beautiful relationship which came to an end with the shooting of the ‘Tsar and Tsarina’ who built their own palace (below) in Bucharest after visiting Buckingham Palace.  It was due to be completed just weeks after their overthrow.

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After meeting Ceaucescu on his state visit in 1978, Margaret Thatcher, then the leader of the opposition, commented:

I was impressed by the personality of President Ceaucescu … Romania is making sustained efforts for consolidating peace and understanding.  

The ‘domino’ events of the Autumn and Winter of 1989 in the eastern part of the continent, in which Margaret Thatcher had played a ‘bit part’ alongside Reagan and Gorbachev, would have a ripple effect on her own fall from power the following year. That was not something many of us involved in East-West relations anticipated even at the end of that year.

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

 

Posted October 7, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Apartheid and the Cold War, Balkan Crises, BBC, Belgium, Berlin, Britain, British history, Britons, Brussels, Coalfields, Cold War, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Communism, Conservative Party, Europe, European Economic Community, European Union, Family, France, Germany, Gorbachev, History, Hungarian History, Hungary, Ireland, Labour Party, liberal democracy, Margaret Thatcher, Marxism, Memorial, Migration, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), Navy, Poverty, privatization, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Revolution, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Syria, terror, terrorism, Thatcherism, Uncategorized, Unemployment, USA, USSR, Warfare

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